“It’s bad enough when the world knows that we’re rendering suspected Islamic terrorists to countries that routinely use terror,” said an unnamed State Department official to a reporter on Sept. 26. “But here we have someone who we know is a terrorist, and it’s clear that we’re actively protecting him from facing justice. We have zero credibility.”

The official was referring to Luis Posada Carilles, a former Venezuelan intelligent agent who had appeared earlier that day before Judge William Abbott in an El Paso, Texas, immigration court. The judge ruled that Posada would not be extradited to Venezuela, where he faces charges for his role in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, among other crimes.

The Cuban-born Posada, a naturalized citizen of Venezuela with longstanding ties to the CIA, quietly arrived in Florida in March. He was charged only with illegal entry. He initially sought political asylum, an unlikely prospect for an assassin and saboteur.

Venezuela submitted its extradition request on June 15. Posada withdrew his application for asylum at an earlier hearing on Aug. 29, and the latest hearing centered on the question of deportation.

Judge Abbott invoked the UN Convention against Torture to justify his ruling. At the previous hearing, Posada’s lawyer produced Joaquin Chaffardet, a longtime friend and colleague of Posada’s, who testified that the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez tortures prisoners. The U.S. prosecutor also expressed concern that because of ties between Venezuela and Cuba, Posada, once in Venezuela, would be transferred to Cuba.

No additional evidence was provided at either hearing that prisoners are tortured in Venezuela, a charge its officials vigorously deny. Ali Rodriguez Araque, Venezula’s foreign minister, told reporters, “We are willing to put [Posada] in a house made of gold and feed him caviar, as long as he is tried in Venezuela, because there is nothing to indicate that we torture people here.”

Venezuelan spokespersons noted that the U.S. recently refused to invoke the UN Convention against Torture when they returned two Army officers to Venezuela who participated in the failed coup attempt against Chavez there in April 2002, citing a lack of evidence that Venezuela tortures prisoners.

Chaffardet was the sole witness at both hearings. His knowledge of Venezuelan torture is apparently based on a 40-year friendship with Posada and on their shared experience working for the Venezuelan police agency DISIP in the 1970s, which was widely known to have practiced torture during those years.

An appeal by the prosecution is thought unlikely. Posada’s detention will continue for 90 more days. Informed sources suggest that the U.S. government may use that time to find a third nation to provide sanctuary for the terrorist, or Posada’s lawyers may request he be released on parole.

U.S. lawyer Jose Pertierra, who represents Venezuela in the case, said the extradition request is still valid, despite the unfavorable decision. He noted that an immigration court lacks jurisdiction over the issue of extradition, which under U.S. law is the concern of the federal court, and that the extradition process has priority over immigration proceedings.

Lawyers cite three legal instruments that obligate the U.S. government to honor Venezuela’s extradition request: the 1922 extradition treaty between the two nations, the International Convention on Civil Aviation signed in 1971, and the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings signed in 1997.

Venezuela is not backing down. Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said Sept. 30 that if the U.S. government deports Posada to a third country, Venezuela would pressure that country for his extradition. President Chavez, speaking the same day, referred to Posada Carriles as “the Osama bin Laden of Latin America.” Two months ago he threatened to alter Venezuela’s diplomatic relations with the United States if Posada were not handed over.