The FBI’s decision to put U.S. fugitive Joanne Chesimard, who lives in Havana, on its list of “Most Wanted Terrorists” shines a light on her case but has no legal impact on her or Cuba, according to analysts.
Chesimard, a former member of the Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army, was convicted in the 1973 murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster, but escaped from prison in 1979 and turned up in Havana in 1984.
Now using the name of Assata Shakur, she was classified as a domestic terrorist in 2005 and on Thursday was added to the list of “Most Wanted Terrorists,” with a $2 million bounty for her arrest. She has maintained that she is innocent.
Gus Coldebella, former acting general counsel at the Homeland Security Department, said the decision to put her on the list reminds the public of her crime and may put pressure on Cuban ruler Raúl Castro to extradite her — “which, while unlikely, is a possibility.”
Cuba and the United States do not have an extradition agreement. Cuba has occasionally extradited U.S. common criminals, but provides safe haven to more than 70 U.S. fugitives, most of them considered by Havana to have been politically persecuted.
Fidel Castro reportedly granted Chesimard, now 65 years old, political asylum as a victim of U.S. racism. She has been spotted occasionally around Havana, but generally shuns public appearances and news media interviews.
The FBI designation also may “have the effect of deincentivizing other people — in the U.S. and elsewhere — from providing her with material support,” Coldebella said in an email to El Nuevo Herald.
The labor union representing the New Jersey state troopers complained in 2011 when first lady Michelle Obama invited rapper Common, who had just released a rap titled “Song for Assata,” to a White House musical event.
But the “Most Wanted Terrorist” designation carries with it no special sanctions for either Chesimard or Cuba, Coldebella added, despite speculation in Miami that the list means U.S. officials can use any means to try to capture or kill the people on it.
“I can see no legal effect of putting her on the list,” he said. “The FBI actually designated her a ‘domestic terrorist’ in 2005, and putting her on the ‘Most Wanted’ list has no additional legal effect.”
The Justice Department has “clarified somewhat the conditions under which the government could order a drone strike against an American citizen, and I think it’s fair to say that moving someone onto the ‘Most Wanted’ list doesn’t affect what the government can or cannot do,” he added.
Asked about the impact of putting Chesimard on the list, FBI Newark Division public affairs officer Luis Rodriguez said simply, “She was a fugitive that has now been added to the Most Wanted Terrorist” list.
Chesimard’s designation to the list caused a media stir because it came amid reports that the Obama administration will not remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Iran, Syria and Sudan are also on the list.
Advocates of improving U.S. relations with Havana had been pushing to take Cuba off the list as the first move in a string of mutual good-will measures that would eventually lead to the lifting of the half-century old U.S. embargo on the island.
But if the Obama administration wants to erase Cuba from the list at some point down the line, Chesimard’s newly heightened profile and other similar cases could make that extremely difficult.
Also living in Cuba is Charles Hill, a former member of a black separatist group, the Republic of New Afrika, wanted for the 1971 murder of New Mexico state police officer Robert Rosenbloom. Hill and two others later hijacked a plane to Havana.
“Back in those days, we were considered ‘black revolutionaries,’” Hill said in a 2009 interview with U.S. journalist Tracey Eaton, posted on his blog, Along the Malecon. “Now we’re considered ‘black terrorists.’ That’s a whole misconception.”
Aaron T. Ford, FBI Special Agent in charge of the Newark division, said Thursday that Chesimard continues to advocate “revolution and terrorism” in Cuba and may have ties to international terrorist organizations. “She’s a danger to the American government.”
Cuba’s communist-run government has steadfastly denied any involvement with terrorism in recent years and sent condolences after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001 and the Boston Marathon bombings last month.
A lengthy Foreign Ministry statement issued in 2011 said Cuba condemns all acts of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.
“The Cuban territory has never been used, nor will it be ever used to mastermind, finance or carry out terrorist acts against any country, including the United States,” it said in the statement “Cuba has always played an exemplary role in facing terrorism.”