An elderly Cuban immigrant was convicted Thursday of concealing his past as a psychiatric nurse who tortured dissidents and other political prisoners, and he will be stripped of his U.S. citizenship and perhaps deported.
A federal jury found that Eriberto Mederos, 79, who came to the United States in 1984, lied on his citizenship application about his actions over a 10-year period at Cuba’s Mazorra Psychiatric Hospital, where witnesses testified he administered electroshocks to foes of Fidel Castro’s regime. The jury also found that Mederos did not tell the truth when he claimed to have never been associated with Cuba’s ruling Communist Party.
Mederos was convicted of obtaining U.S. citizenship under false pretenses, and he could be imprisoned for five years and fined $250,000. According to federal officials, his citizenship will also be revoked, and he may be sent back to his native island.
“This verdict sends a strong message about the meaning of American citizenship,” U.S. Atty. Guy A. Lewis said. “It is a privilege that has to be obtained lawfully, and human rights abuses are not compatible with American citizenship. When the rights of human beings are violated, you forfeit your right to be a United States citizen.”
Leaders of exile organizations based in Miami also hailed the verdict, saying it should dissuade Cuban officials from mistreating political opponents. “It sends a message that anyone who complies with criminal orders under the Castro regime will be prosecuted,” said Orlando Gutierrez, national secretary of the Cuban Democratic Directorate. “Justice will be brought to those who commit crimes.”
The State Department’s 2002 report on human rights calls Cuba a “totalitarian state” where the fundamental civil and political rights of its inhabitants are systematically violated. Human rights advocates and independent journalists, economists, doctors and lawyers are harassed, arrested arbitrarily and imprisoned, and jail conditions are so harsh that some prisoners are beaten by security forces or prison officials, or die for lack of medical care, the State Department said.
During the trial in Miami federal court, witnesses described how from 1968 to 1978, Mederos, accompanied by two burly assistants, meted out electroshock treatments to patients at the notorious Havana psychiatric hospital, many of whom were confined for opposing Castro’s rule.
“It was like Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ ” was how one witness, former Cuban political prisoner Nilo Jerez, described his three months in a ward he said was completely under Mederos’ control. Under the guise of “electroshock therapy,” witnesses said the nurse caused them to suffer extreme pain, physical injury and loss of consciousness and control over their bodily functions.
In his defense, Mederos, now a frail, stooped figure, said he delivered the electroshocks only when prescribed by doctors.
“He had no ability to make discretionary calls,” defense attorney David Rothman told the jury. “If he gave treatment to those to whom it was prescribed, it wasn’t torture. It was not given to them because of their political beliefs.” It was not clear whether Rothman intended to appeal. He could not be reached for comment.
The Mederos case has been an embarrassment to U.S. government officials, who have said they cannot explain why citizenship was granted to the Cuban immigrant in 1993, even though a year before he had been publicly accused of torturing political prisoners. For years, the man who was infamous in his homeland as El Enfermero (the Nurse) lived freely in Miami.
He was finally indicted and arrested last Sept. 4. after Miami’s two Cuban American members of the House of Representatives became active in the case.
According to U.S. officials, Mederos can be deported only if Cuba chooses to accept him back. Assistant U.S. Atty. Frank Tamen, who prosecuted the case, has said Cuba might let him return because he once worked for the government.