WASHINGTON -- Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke will defend a Cuban diplomat who was forced to leave the United States yesterday after being accused of spying.
Jose Imperatori, 46, was taken into custody by FBI agents at his Bethesda apartment with Schmoke by his side late last night.
Imperatori was to be placed on a U.S. government flight to Montreal, then return to his native Havana today, after initially refusing to leave -- a move that State Department officials called unprecedented.
Schmoke, who was mayor of Baltimore from 1987 until two months ago and a city state's attorney, will represent Imperatori, the second-highest ranking Cuban official in the United States.
Imperatori has been accused of helping an Immigration and Naturalization Service official in Miami spy on behalf of Cuba.
Cuban government leaders in Washington, D.C., hired Schmoke, who recently began working with the Washington-based law firm Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering, because of his efforts in his last year as mayor to create a cultural exchange with the Cuban government that included baseball games between the Orioles and the Cuban national team in Havana and Baltimore last spring.
Schmoke, who gained national attention 12 years ago for being the highest elected U.S. politician to call for a medical response to drug offenses, said at a news conference yesterday that he has agreed to fight the United States' accusations on behalf of the defiant communist diplomat, citing the American principle of "innocent until proven guilty."
"Mr. Imperatori wants to make it very clear that he in no way is involved in espionage and that the Cuban Interests Section is not involved in that activity," Schmoke said inside the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington.
"We are not trying to fight with the United States government," Schmoke added. "But Mr. Imperatori feels that a grave injustice would be done to force him to leave this country without clearing up the matters and clearing his name and the name of the Interests Section."
By defending Imperatori, Schmoke becomes a figure in the latest chapter in the relationship between the United States and Cuba.
Tensions between Cuban President Fidel Castro and the U.S. government have been increasingly strained since Nov. 25, when a Cuban boy, Elian Gonzalez, 6, reached the United States after he was rescued at sea in an attempt to leave Cuba. His mother drowned during the trip.
Since the boy's arrival, relatives in Miami have joined Cuban exiles there and sympathetic members of Congress in blocking INS attempts to send Gonzalez back to Cuba to live with his father.
Cuban officials said yesterday that the U.S. government's attempt to throw Imperatori out of the country 32 hours before a federal hearing on the boy's fate -- which has since been postponed -- proved that the spying accusations are the nation's latest strategic political move in the Gonzalez case.
Unlike other nations, the Cuban government does not have a U.S. embassy in Washington. Its diplomats operate its Interests Section in offices in the Swiss Embassy about a mile north of the White House. The mission has been open since 1922. An agreement with the United States prohibits Cuban officials from doing intelligence work.
Contact between Cubans and Americans is to be reported before any meeting, according to diplomatic standards.
Imperatori was asked to leave the country by 1: 30 p.m. yesterday after the FBI accused him of being the Washington contact for Mariano M. Faget, a Miami-based and Cuban-born INS veteran of 34 years who was arrested 10 days ago on charges of spying for Cuba.
As part of his strategy to fight the order to leave the country, Imperatori announced yesterday that he resigned his position with the Cuban government and began a hunger strike, vowing to consume only liquids until his name is cleared.
On Friday, he sent his wife and 3-year-old son back to Cuba. As a diplomat, Imperatori could have sought refuge in the Cuban diplomatic offices.
'Truth will be my shield'
Standing outside his apartment three hours before the deadline to leave yesterday, Imperatori declared his innocence, with Schmoke by his side.
"My morale and my truth will be my shield," he said.
President Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright called Imperatori's initial challenge to the persona non grata U.S. request to leave "unprecedented" in world affairs.
"Under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, Cuba must either recall the diplomat or terminate his functions," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said.
With Imperatori leaving the country, Schmoke's role as his attorney is expected to involve asking the United States to allow him to return to testify in the Gonzalez case, as the representative of the Cuban government.
Two years ago, Schmoke took a diplomatic trip to Cuba with the Center for International Policy, a Washington-based advocacy group pushing to end the U.S. embargo. He suggested that the conflicting nations have a baseball exhibition.
Last spring, the Orioles visited Havana and the Cuban all-stars played in Camden Yards, an event that led to further swaps between Baltimore and Cuba, including a chess match, tennis exhibition, doctor exchange and even trash trucks being given to Cuba as gifts from the city.
Friction over the Gonzalez case, however, has temporarily suspended a proposed regatta from Baltimore to Havana.
Maryland political veterans did not seem surprised that the former mayor's first high-profile legal case since leaving politics involves defending a communist diplomat.
"Schmoke has had a knack for finding unpopular causes to champion," said Carol Arscott, a political consultant and former state Republican activist.
"I guess the man is not going back into politics," Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor, said, chuckling. "But a client is a client, and it's a big case that's going to get his name back in the limelight in a big way."
As he prepared to hand his client over to FBI agents last night, Schmoke said the right to legal representation, not publicity, was his impetus for defending Imperatori.
"He feels very strongly that a real injury is being done here," Schmoke said. "He wants an opportunity to clear his name."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.