August 15, 2014

Cuban defector says he has information about Payá’s death

He is being held in Bahamas immigration detention center and applying for political asylum.

An officer in Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior who claims to be related to former MININT chief Jose Abrantes and to have valuable information has defected and is being held in a migrant detention center in the Bahamas.

Ortelio Abrahantes Bacallao, 42, claims that fellow counterintelligence agents told him that dissident Osvaldo Payá was killed when intelligence agents rammed his car in an attempt to stop and search it, and not in a one-car accident as the Cuban government claims.

None of the claims could be independently confirmed. But he has documents identifying him as a member of MININT’s Technical Investigations Directorate, a police-like unit that investigates common crimes, and a graduate of MININT’s law school.

Abrahantes Bacallao told El Nuevo Herald he held the rank of major in MININT’s Directorate of Counterintelligence (DCI) and was last in charge of all the ministry’s land and sea transportation operations in the province of Ciego de Avila, in central Cuba. The powerful ministry is in overall charge of the island nation’s domestic security.

The defector said he launched his escape March 24 from a key off the northern coast of the province aboard a MININT-owned sailboat, but was picked up three days later by the U.S. Coast Guard and was taken to the Bahamas. He is being held at the Carmichael Road migrant detention center in Nassau.

Bahamian police and United Nations officials have interviewed him for his application for political asylum, Abrahantes Bacallao said. But he fears he will be murdered if the Nassau government repatriates him to Cuba before the application is processed.

“I know too much. They would love to have me in their hands,” Abrahantes Bacallao told El Nuevo Herald. His Miami lawyer, David Alvarez, said he “faces being executed if he returns to Cuba because he was involved in the military.”

The defector said his father was a cousin of Interior Minister Gen. José Abrantes, who was arrested in 1989 and charged with failing to stop the drug trafficking and corruption that led to the execution of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa and three others that same year. He was serving a 20-year prison term when he died in 1991 in what friends described as mysterious circumstances.

Although Abrahantes Bacallao spells his surname differently from Jose Abrantes, he has claimed that his birth certificate spells it the same way and that the “h” was added when he joined the MININT. Official Cuban records often contain misspellings.

The defector said he heard details about the Payá case during a party with other DCI officers about one month after his death on July 22, 2012, in what Cuban officials portrayed as a one-car accident caused by his driver, Spanish politician Angel Carromero. The Spaniard has insistently alleged that he was rammed from behind by another vehicle.

One senior officer at the party told him that counterintelligence agents from the province of Holguin, east of Ciego de Avila, who were driving a red Lada vehicle model 2107 had tried to stop Carromero’s vehicle to search it an instead caused it to crash, Abrahantes Bacallao told El Nuevo Herald. The crash occurred south of Holguin and near the city of Bayamo.

Payá and fellow dissident Harold Cepero died at a hospital in Bayamo, according to the defector’s version. Cuban officials have said Payá died at the crash from massive head trauma and Cepero at a Bayamo hospital.

Abrahantes Bacallao said he was told the agents in the crash were from the KJ department, which specializes in surveillance, of DCI’s Section XXI, in charge of monitoring and repressing dissidents.

Friends at the party also told him that MININT rewarded the agents with medals and ordered the Lada chopped down to erase all evidence of a two-car crash, according to the defector. They knew about the accident in part because Cepero was a native of Ciego de Avila.

Abrahantes Bacallao added he was also told the Cuban government had claimed that Payá — 2003 winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize and founder of the Christian Liberation Movement — died at the site of the crash in order to cover up its responsibility.

Carromero and another passenger, Swedish politician Jens Aron Modig, survived the crash. Modig has claimed he was asleep when they crashed. Carromero was convicted in Cuba of vehicular homicide for losing control of his vehicle and slamming into a tree. He was sentenced to four years, but is serving the sentence in Spain.

Payá’s daughter, Rosa Maria Payá, said the family has spoken with the attorney for Abrahantes Bacallao but will not comment on the defector’s version of the deaths of her father and Cepero.

Family members have repeatedly alleged that Payá was tailed by government agents virtually everywhere he went, and that they have information showing Carromero was rammed from behind by another vehicle. They have urged several international bodies and Spanish courts for an independent investigation of the case.

Abrahantes Bacallao said he joined the MININT in 1998, earned a law degree in 2010 from a MININT college in Havana and a master’s degree in 2011 in business administration from the university in Ciego de Avila.

Another document shows he studied “DTI operative investigations” for five years at a MININT institution in Ciego de Avila, where he said he was recruited by counterintelligence. Such recruitments are not unusual in Cuba, where people in sensitive positions have dual responsibilities to their regular supervisors and their DCI chain of command.

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