A convicted American killer living in Cuba has become the first woman to be named on the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” list.
In 1979, Joanne Chesimard, a member of the Black Liberation Army (BLA), escaped from the U.S. prison where she was serving a life sentence for the murder in 1973 of a New Jersey state trooper.
The FBI and state of New Jersey are offering a $2 million dollar reward for information leading to her capture, which remains unlikely given the absence of a US extradition agreement with its communist neighbour. Up to 70 fugitives from the US are believed to be sheltered by the Cuban government. Chesimard, now 65, is no longer considered a threat, but is listed on the FBI site as a domestic terrorist, only the second US citizen to make the list.
Also known as Assata Shakur, Chesimard is aunt to the late hip-hop star Tupac Shakur. In 2000, another rapper, Common, released “A Song for Assata” after meeting her in Havana; the song became controversial when Michelle Obama invited him to a White House event in 2011.
It not entirely clear why the FBI has added Chesimard to its “Most Wanted” list now, besides its her crime’s 40th anniversary. The list does not necessarily reflect those who pose the most imminent threat to the US; rather it contains names to whom the FBI wishes to draw public attention, thus improving the chances of capture. Alleged paedophile Eric Toth, who replaced Osama bin Laden on the “10 Most Wanted” list, was last month recognised and arrested in Nicaragua.
The icy relations between US law enforcement and Cuba have thawed in recent years, with the government in Havana agreeing to deport a handful of fugitives. But Fidel Castro has personally championed Chesimard, making her extradition almost unthinkable; in 2005, Cuba’s then-president declared, “They wanted to portray her as a terrorist, something that was an injustice, a brutality, an infamous lie.”
The FBI, however, claims Chesimard continues to advocate “revolution and terrorism”. Mike Rinaldi of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force insisted at a press conference: “This case is just as important today as it was when it happened 40 years ago… This is an active investigation and will continue as such until Chesimard is apprehended.”
During the 1970s, the BLA was considered a revolutionary extremist organisation, responsible for the deaths of at least a dozen US police officers. In 1973 Chesimard was wanted for her involvement in crimes including bank robbery. Forty years ago this week, she and two associates were pulled over by a pair of state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike for a broken tail light. They opened fire, wounding one officer, before Chesimard allegedly shot the second, Werner Foerster, at point blank range with his own service weapon, killing him “execution-style”.
In 1977, she was given a life sentence for several crimes including first degree murder. “I don’t even want to call it a trial, it was lynching, by an all-white jury,” Chesimard told the BET TV network in a rare 2001 interview. “I had nothing but contempt for the system of justice under which I was tried.” Two years into her sentence, armed BLA members broke Chesimard out of the Clinton Correctional Facility in New Jersey. She lived on the run until emerging in Cuba in 1984.