CUBA

Carromero says Cuban officer forced him to change crash story

 

jtamayo@ElNuevoHerald.com

Angel Carromero says a Cuban officer slapped him “a couple of times” to dissuade him from insisting that the death of leading dissident Oswaldo Payá was caused by State Security agents and was not an accident.

The evidence also led him to conclude that Payá and another dissident, Harold Cepero, survived a car crash and were murdered later by State Security, Carromero told El Nuevo Herald Tuesday during his most detailed recounting yet of the crash.

The Spaniard’s comments by phone from Madrid shed new light on a fatal incident that has led the Payá family, the U.S. and other governments and many human rights activists around the world to demand an independent investigation of the deaths.

Carromero said he is now speaking at length about the crash and its aftermath to help Payá’s relatives — he is eager to testify at any lawsuit they file against Cuba, he noted — and to mark the anniversary of the deaths on July 22.

Cuba’s version is that he was driving a rented Hyundai too fast and hit a tree near the eastern city of Bayamo. Payá died on the spot and Cepero later at a hospital. Another passenger, Jens Aron Modig of Sweden, was not injured. Carromero was convicted of vehicular homicide and was freed to serve his four-year prison sentence in Spain.

Carromero says that a Cuban man in military uniform “slapped me around a couple of times” to persuade him that he was wrong when he insisted on saying that a car with government license plates had rammed his vehicle from behind and caused the crash.

“That did not happen. Slap. Slap,” he recalled the officer saying. “It wasn’t a beating. A couple of slaps because they wanted me to change my version of events.”

Carromero said his car had been tailed by three different government vehicles, including one marked police cruiser, from the time the foursome left Havana the morning of July 22 to visit dissidents in eastern Cuba. The two Europeans were members of conservative political parties that often support the island’s opposition.

Evidencing the intensity of the government’s interest on Payá and the Europeans, “Yohandry Fontana,” widely believed to be a front for State Security operations, tweeted six hours before the crash that Payá was on his way to the beach resort of Varadero.

Carromero said they never drove to Varadero. But on the previous day, he added, he had exchanged 4,000 Euros into Cuban currency in Havana. When the teller asked him why he was changing so much, he replied that he was going to Varadero.

The police cruiser that initially tailed them gave way to an old red Lada as they made their way east, he said, and shortly before the crash was replaced by a newer blue car, also with clearly visible blue license plates and with two men aboard.

That car kept getting closer and Payá told him to maintain his normal speed of about 50-60 kph, the Spaniard said. But he grew scared, “It’s terrifying to look at the rear view mirror and see the eyes of the person that is looking at you.

“I felt the impact and lost control,” he said. He fainted and does not recall hitting a tree, certainly not with the kind of impact that would have killed two people. He never saw the blue car or its passengers again.

Carromero said he recovered consciousness as a group of men were putting him into a white mini-van that apparently drove him to the hospital in Bayamo. It was the same kind of van that police later used to drive him from prison to his trial, he added. At his trial, Cuban officials said they did not know who drove him to the hospital.

He fainted again and came to in the hospital, where he got two stitches for a cut on the right side of the head. The Spaniard said he was initially told that four people had arrived, then three, then just two — he and Modig.

Carromero said he never saw Payá or Cepero in the hospital, but that considering all the evidence in the case, including the fact that Payá’s relatives never received a copy of his autopsy, “it is logical that they were assassinated.”

At the hospital, he told the first Cuban official that questioned him — a woman in military uniform — that another car had rammed him and run him off the road. She took down his testimony and had him sign that declaration, he added.

But then a group of male officers in uniform, including the man who slapped him, turned up and threatened that if he did not agree to say that it was a one-car crash he might go to jail and not get out for a long time, Carromero added.

Eventually he agreed to film a video voicing the Cuban version of the crash and hoping to get a light sentence. While Gross remains in prison, Carromero was allowed to return to Spain to serve the remainder of his sentence. He now wears a GGBPS ankle bracelet.

“At 26 years of age, surrounded by military people, without knowing what the hell to do … I signed anything,” he said.

A Spanish consular official visited him two or three days after the crash but was turned back for several weeks afterwards, Carromero said. He did not meet his Cuban lawyer until about 20 days after the crash and with his Spanish lawyer until one day before his trial. The Cuban lawyer had a suspicious motorcycle accident before the trial and broke a foot.

Carromero said he is now extremely thankful that the Spanish government, controlled by his Popular Party, had persuaded Cuba to allow him to serve the remainder of his sentence at home. He is on home release.

But he ruefully admits that he considered suicide when he was jailed in Cuba.

“I don’t feel very proud of that,” he said. “But I was desperate. I thought they were never going to let me go. In that country, they accuse you and you’re already condemned. Resign yourself, because it’s over.”

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