Last week’s announced shift in relations between Washington and Havana has renewed the call for Cuba to turn over one of the United States’ most controversial fugitives — a woman U.S. law enforcement officials call a cop-killer and a terrorist; who has become a folk hero in the eyes of supporters who believe her to be innocent.
Even the act of naming her reveals the depth of the schism. Law enforcement calls her JoAnne Chesimard. Her supporters know her by her chosen name, Assata Shakur. If the name rings a bell to the apolitical, it is likely because she is the godmother and aunt of slain rap star Tupac Shakur.
Thirty years ago, Shakur fled to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum by Fidel Castro. There she has remained. U.S. law enforcement has repeatedly sought her extradition, and the FBI has placed her on its Top Ten Most Wanted Terrorists list. Information directly leading to her apprehension carries a $2 million reward.
The question now: What becomes now of Shakur?
To law enforcement, Shakur is the killer convicted in the execution-style slaying of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1973. She is the Black Liberation Army leader busted out of prison by her comrades two years into a life sentence, a domestic terrorist implicated in a string of crimes and a key part of organization that waged war on police.
To her supporters, Shakur has been persecuted by the same corrupt and racist justice system that they say persecuted Michael Brown and Eric Garner. During the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, her name became a rallying cry. She has long been a revolutionary symbol, a radical black female often described as “the ultimate fugitive from injustice.”
In a letter sent to the White House Friday and made public by his office Sunday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pressed for Chesmard’s return. He said Cuba’s decision to grant her asylum “is an affront to every resident of our state, our country, and in particular, the men and women of the New Jersey State Police, who have tirelessly tried to bring this killer back to justice.”
Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House’s National Security Council, said it will “continue to press in our engagement with the Cuban government for the return of U.S. fugitives in Cuba to pursue justice for the victims of their crimes.”
Shakur was a member of the Black Panther Party before joining the Black Liberation Army, a militant nationalist group. In 1973, Shakur, and two BLA members were stopped by two state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike for a faulty taillight. The FBI says Shakur and one of her associates opened fire, and a gun battle ensued. Foerster and one of the BLA members were killed. The other trooper and Shakur were wounded.
There is still much debate over who shot first and what the evidence says or doesn’t say. Shakur has maintained the officer was the aggressor, that she was shot while her hands were up and wounded in such a way that she could not have fired the execution-style shot that ended the trooper’s life. But, the fact remained that an officer was shot dead on the side of the road, and under New Jersey law, she was an accomplice, an aider and abettor who could be charged with murder.
Immediately after the president’s announcement, the New Jersey State Police issued a statement saying the move to normalize relations with Cuba presents an opportunity to bring Shakur back to finish her sentence in Foerster’s murder. “We stand by the reward money and hope that the total of two million dollars will prompt fresh information in the light of this altered international relationship.” The state’s acting Attorney General John Hoffman said his office would be working with federal authorities to find a way to “return her to her rightful place in a New Jersey prison.”
The U.S. Attorney General’s office did not respond to questions about whether it urged the administration to seek her extradition in its negotiations with Cuba — or whether it would push for it now. Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council spokesperson, would not address the Shakur case directly, but she said the U.S. “will continue to press for the return of U.S. fugitives in Cuba to pursue justice for the victims of their crimes in our engagement with the Cuban government.”
It is unclear exactly how many U.S. fugitives live in Cuba, but Teishan Latner, a post-doctoral Fellow for the Center for the United States and the Cold War at New York University, estimates the number to be about 70. Latner has done extensive research and writing on the role Shakur has played in U.S.-Cuba relations.
More any other political exile in Cuba, he says, Shakur “grew to symbolize Cuba’s provision of sanctuary to American dissidents.” She embodies “both the FBI’s campaign to retrieve fugitives from the island and the Castro government’s commitment to sanctuary even in the face of strong diplomatic pressure.”
If she was not discussed during the negotiations with Cuba, Latner says, “it would be incredible to me. It is possible she wasn’t, and if she wasn’t, it would tell me something about the priority she actually is.”
When several BLA members broke Shakur out of a women’s prison in New Jersey in 1979, she assumed the status of a folk hero. She likened herself to an escaped slave.
Says Latner: “Supporters in New York, Oakland and Los Angeles posted their own notices on neighborhood lampposts and in the windows of their homes: ‘Assata Shakur is welcome here.’”
After five years in hiding, she turned up in Cuba, where the Castro regime embraced her. Even while she was in prison in the United States, it had already proclaimed her a political prisoner, Latner says.
In 2013, the FBI named her one of the top 10 most wanted terrorists, a designation that provoked outcry. She became the first and remains the only woman on the list. The U.S. consistently has said her return, as well as those of other fugitives, is key to normalizing relations with Cuba.
Will she be extradited? Not likely, says Douglas McNabb, an international criminal lawyer specializing in extradition law. The United States and Cuba have an extradition treaty dating back to 1905, and murder is one of the provisions that allows for extradition. But, he says, like many treaties between countries, there is also a provision that makes an exception for political offenses. And that language says not only that Cuba may not return those to whom it has granted political asylum, but that it cannot.
“It says ‘shall not,’ not ‘may not’ extradite,” McNabb says. “So, Cuba can say, ‘Look, we would like to do this, but no, we can’t.’ So, from the legal standpoint, that’s the law. From a policy standpoint, states can do what they want and if Cuba wants to send her back, Cuba can do that, but I don’t think that will happen.”
Meanwhile, an angry debate erupted on the New Jersey State Police Facebook page.
“We will never let you have Assata Shakur,” wrote one defender.
“Are you people out of your minds?” came a response. “A cop killer should rot in hell, and be put there by the state.”
Latner has visited Cuba several times and once briefly met Shakur. He says her associates have told him that since the reward for her apprehension is so high, she moves from place to place on the island, under the protection of Cuban security.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.