Elian saga shifts from Little Havana to courts

MIAMI - With relative calm returning to Little Havana, the Elian Gonzalez case shifted Friday to the courts, where the government asked appeals judges to order his great-uncle to turn him over to his father.

The Justice Department said Lazaro Gonzalez should receive no help from a federal appeals court in Atlanta until he surrenders the 6-year-old Cuban boy to his father. Going a step further, the government asked the court to order the handover.

The arguments came in response to Thursday's federal appeals court injunction that prevents Elian from leaving the country for the time being. Shortly after the papers were filed, the court moved swiftly - ordering the family to respond by 9 p.m. Friday.

The relatives, who lost their custody case in a Florida family court and are appealing a federal judge's ruling that upheld the government's decision to return Elian to his father, also opened an attack on a new legal front.

They argued in federal court in Washington that Elian should be barred from leaving the country until the U.S. government can certify that his human rights wouldn't be violated if he returned to Cuba.

In Cuba, ''Elian would face the risk of being persecuted for having sought asylum in the United States,'' lawyers for Lazaro Gonzalez said in papers filed Thursday. A judge set a meeting with lawyers for Wednesday to discuss whether the case will go forward.

The injunction served to defuse the crisis on Thursday, when Elian's Miami relatives ignored a government deadline to hand over the boy. Thousands of people had massed outside Lazaro Gonzalez's home, threatening to defy any attempt by the government to enforce its will and seize Elian. When the injunction came down, the Justice Department agreed not to take action to reunite Elian with his father for a few days.

Still, the Justice Department pointedly reminded Lazaro Gonzalez in a letter Friday that his custody over Elian expired when he failed to put the boy on a plane Thursday for a reunion with his father in Washington.

''You have no legal basis to continue to exercise control over Elian,'' wrote Michael Pearson, the executive associate commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The government's court filing also revealed that Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, has agreed that if he is given custody of Elian, he will stay in the United States until the appeals court rules on the case.

The father spent his ninth day in America without Elian, who remained in his great-uncle's house in Little Havana.

Outside the house, 100 Cuban-American protesters continued their vigil in a soaking rain, huddling under blue tarps and singing religious songs. Elian and his 21-year-old cousin, Marisleysis, came to the front door and waved to the crowd.

After the rain stopped, the crowd began to swell again, reaching at least 250 by late evening.

''Knowing the federal government, they're going to start putting some incredible pressure on that family,'' said one of the protesters, Fausto Diaz, a 34-year-old businessman. ''I hope the government doesn't go batter down the door.''

Elian was rescued by fishermen while clinging to an inner tube in the ocean on Thanksgiving. 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 Clinton administration has ordered Elian back to his father, saying only he can speak for the boy on immigration matters.

In their court filing in Washington, the Miami relatives said that Elian, if returned to Cuba, would be indoctrinated to believe his mother, her boyfriend and his family in Florida were ''traitors to the revolution.''

They asked that the U.S. government to be barred from deporting Elian unless the State Department can certify that Cuba is in compliance with the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and that the country is ''no longer engaged in systematic, gross violations of human rights.''

They cited evidence that Juan Miguel Gonzalez was under pressure from the Cuban government to demand Elian's return.

Justice Department lawyers countered by saying immigration officials found nothing to suggest Elian that would be at risk of torture or persecution if returned to his father, or that his father had been coerced by the Cuban government.

Also Friday, the Miami relatives defended their decision to distribute a home video of Elian telling his father he does not want to return to Cuba.

''What's disturbing is that Elian should have had the opportunity to speak in the privacy of an asylum hearing or a family court hearing,'' attorney Spencer Eig said. ''But he was not permitted that opportunity by the INS. He was not willing to be condemned to a future in Cuba in silence.''

Lazaro Gonzalez wrote what he termed ''an open letter to the government'' Friday, asking that no action be taken in the case during Easter week.

''In the same way that U.S. planes halted bombing raids over Baghdad a few years ago during Ramadan, and as fighting ceased in Kosovo during Holy Week, we ask for time to do what is right for Elian and our family,'' the letter said.


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