Elian drama moves from Miami back into courts
By Mark Stevenson, Associated Press, 04/14/00
MIAMI - The government asked a federal appeals court today to order Elian Gonzalez's Miami relatives to return the boy to his father, who agreed to stay in this country until it rules. The relatives, turning to another court for help, invoked the U.N. human-rights charter in asking that Elian stay.
A day after daring the government to take him by force, Elian's Miami relatives vowed today to keep waiting until federal agents come to them -- something that won't happen until a last-minute injunction is resolved in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The government filed a brief this morning with that court, which had issued the temporary injunction at the relatives' request. The government said the 6-year-old boy's great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez, who has temporary custody, came to the court with "unclean hands" and in violation of an order to surrender the boy, Justice Department spokeswoman Carole Florman said.
The government said Lazaro should not get any help from the court until he obeys the federal order, Florman said. It offered to order Elian kept in the country until all legal issues are resolved -- if Lazaro Gonzalez does turn over the boy.
Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, agreed to stay in the United States with the boy for that long if he has custody, according to a letter from his attorney that was attached to the government brief, Florman said.
This afternoon, the appeals judge in that case asked the relatives' lawyers to rebut the government's arguments by 9 p.m. EDT tonight. Armando Gutierrez, a spokesman for the Miami relatives, said they viewed the request as routine.
A remarkable flurry of events Thursday ended with Elian's relatives winning a temporary court reprieve that keeps the boy in the United States for at least a few more days. The government, though, reiterated its plans to act -- when it's legally free to do so.
"We'll take action in a way that's appropriate to the situation when we're ready," INS Commissioner Doris Meissner said on NBC's "Today." The Justice Department, responding to the Atlanta appeals court, has informally agreed not to transfer custody of Elian to his father for three or four days.
The relatives defied the government order to make Elian available Thursday for a flight to Washington and a reunion with the father. In a last-minute plea, they distributed a home video that shows Elian telling his father he does not want to return to Cuba.
The appeals court in Atlanta temporarily blocked anyone from taking Elian out of the country until it decides whether to hear the relatives' claims. The government's response today, in a 61-page brief and 35 more pages of supporting documents, called Lazaro "a mere distant relative."
Meanwhile, the Miami relatives turned elsewhere for help, asking the U.S. District Court in Washington to bar the government from deporting Elian until it can certify Cuba is in compliance with the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and "no longer engaged in `systematic, gross violations of human rights."'
If Elian returned to Cuba, briefs filed by Lazaro Gonzalez's attorneys said, he "would face the risk of being persecuted for having sought asylum in the United States. He would be politically indoctrinated to a much larger extent than others."
At a brief hearing today in Washington, attorney George Fowler, representing Lazaro Gonzalez, told U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. that because a federal appeals court has blocked Elian's removal from the country, the need for Kennedy to act now has "lessened considerably."
But should the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals lift its order, "we may have to come back quickly" and seek an order by Kennedy, Fowler said. After government lawyers said they did not object, Kennedy scheduled a hearing for Wednesday.
At the relatives' house in Little Havana, under soaking rain, more than 150 people huddled under blue tarps and kept the faith this morning. "Lazaro! Lazaro!" they chanted in the downpour after the great-uncle came out to greet them.
On Thursday, protesters had crowded the narrow streets around the house expecting to block federal agents from taking the boy. Their joy at the appeals court's injunction spilled into the rest of the neighborhood, with drivers clogging traffic, blasting salsa music and waving Cuban flags into the night.
"Our miracle happened!" shouted Mercedes Franco, 59, one of the thousands of protesters in Little Havana. "That boy is a miracle. I feel like screaming everything."
Some, though, pledged not to let their guards down.
"At every turn there's been a betrayal. We can't let our guard down," Carlos Rivero, 34, a car salesman, said this morning outside the house after the crowds had ebbed. "We are better off than we were yesterday, but we are definitely not home free."
Attorney General Janet Reno appeared to be speeding the case to its conclusion by meeting for 2 hours Wednesday with Elian and his relatives and then issuing the flight ultimatum. But when it became clear that the family would not heed the deadline, Reno said she would respond in a "reasonable, measured way."
The family said Reno's order was unacceptable because they want a reunion with Juan Miguel Gonzalez in which they would not have to relinquish custody of Elian. The father has said he will only meet with the relatives once Elian is back in his care.
President Clinton, asked in Atlanta today about the case, said he supported Reno. "The rule of law has got to be upheld. If we don't do it here, where do we stop?" Clinton said.
Elian was rescued by two fishermen while clinging to an inner tube in the Florida Straits on Thanksgiving Day. His mother and 10 other people fleeing Cuba drowned when their boat sank.
His Miami relatives have cared for him ever since and have been fighting in court for an asylum hearing. The Cuban government has called for Elian's return. The Clinton administration has ordered Elian back to his father, saying only he can speak for the boy on immigration matters.
That doesn't sit well with at least one Cuban-American voter outside the relatives' house today. If the government does take the boy, said Juan Perez Hamilton, 64, "I would feel ashamed of this administration.
He added: "But in November, we will get even."
EDITOR'S NOTE: AP Writers Michael J. Sniffen and Laurie Asseo contributed to this report from Washington.