CubaBrief: Cuba’s Black Spring 17 years later; José Daniel Ferrer García and Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara facing the Castro’s injustice system

Cuban dissident José Daniel Ferrer García allegedly faces a nine year prison sentence, but the Castro regime during a show trial that violated international norms was declaring him guilty over social media on the first day of the trial. This is not the first time he has been subjected to such a travesty. In 2003 he was rounded up in a major crackdown on independent Cuban civil society, threatened with the death penalty and eventually sentenced to a 25 year prison sentence. At the time the dictatorship was accusing him of taking part in a petition drive that was legally recognized under Cuban law.

The  Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) yesterday condemned the worsening human rights situation on the island in a statement that referenced José Daniel’s current trial quoting Commissioner Stuardo Ralón Orellana, the rapporteur for Cuba, who stated that “In Cuba we observe a pattern of manipulation of criminal law to hinder the exercise of political rights, in a context of lack of judicial independence. This case is of particular concern to us.”

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Cuba’s black spring began 17 years ago today, the massive roundup of dissidents by the Castro regime’s secret police. Their crimes? Some had organized a petition drive, legally recognized within the existing constitution; others were independent journalists or human rights activists. Over a 100 were rounded up but 75 would be subjected to political show trials and sentenced to lengthy prison terms ranging up to 28 years in prison. Luis Enrique Ferrer García, Jose Daniel’s brother, was handed down that sentence because during his trial he invited the judge to sign the Varela Project. Amnesty International recognized them all as prisoners of conscience. The Cuban dictatorship thought it had crushed the Cuban democratic opposition, but they were wrong.

In the midst of the crackdown emerged a new and formidable force: The Ladies in White. The mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of the 74 men imprisoned organized into this movement that began to march through the streets of Cuba following mass on Sundays, organizing literary teas, and strategizing how to nonviolently free their loved ones. One woman was condemned to prison in the 2003 Black Spring and she was sentenced to 20 years.

Despite the slanders, death threats, beatings, and broken bones by 2011 all of the 75 political prisoners, who became known as the “group of the 75” where out of prison. Most were sent into exile but 12 who held out to the end remain in the island and today continue the struggle and the others now outside, who still live, press on for a democratic transition in Cuba.

A number of additional dissidents were arrested during or around the time of the crackdown. Amnesty International gathered information on their activities, the circumstances of their arrest and their current legal status, in order to determine if they too should be considered prisoners of conscience. They include Rafael Ernesto Avila Pérez, Javier García Pérez, Félix Jaime González Martínez, Rolando Jimenes Posada, Rafael Millet Leyva, Miguel Sigler Amaya, Pablo Solis Cubilla and Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

Looking back seventeen years ago there is a documentary The Black Spring La Primavera Negra filmed in Cuba before and after the crackdown that captures that moment in time filmed by Czech – Chilean journalist Carlos Gonzalez. The names of the prisoner of conscience, their age at the time of arrest, and prison sentences are available online. (Source: Amnesty, 2003)

We also have to look at intervening events: Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, the founder of the Ladies in White who died under suspicious circumstances in 2011 and  Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, (who some asked at the time why he was not jailed in 2003), was killed in what appears to have been a state security engineered “accident” in 2012. 

Today there are six prisoners of conscience in Cuba recognized by Amnesty International. They are Josiel Guía Piloto, Silverio Portal Contreras, Mitzael Díaz Paseiro, Eliecer Bandera Barrera, Edilberto Ronal Arzuaga Alcalá, and Roberto de Jesús Quiñones Haces. Over the past six decades there have been tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience under the Castro dictatorship, and more Cubans face this threat of being jailed for exercising their human rights.

Decree 349, a law passed in 2018, that further restricts artistic freedoms in Cuba targets artists. Cuban artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, age 32, was arrested on March 1, 2020 for various charges including “the ‘desecration of patriotic symbols’—an allegation relating to his 2019 performance #LaBanderaEsDeTodos, which saw the artist wearing the Cuban flag for a month straight.” He was jailed for thirteen days but the international campaign for his release, along with being identified as a prisoner of conscience achieved its goal, for the time being. He still faces trial on these political charges. Artnet News offers more information on the artist’s plight.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara in September 2019. Courtesy of the artist's Instagram.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara in September 2019. Courtesy of the artist’s Instagram.

artnet news, March 17, 2020

After an International Outcry, Cuban Performance Artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara Has Been Released From Jail

But the artist’s legal woes aren’t over yet.

By Taylor Dafoe,

After spending nearly two weeks in jail, Cuban performance artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara has been released from following an outcry from artists and international rights groups.

Otero Alcántara, who is 32, was arrested outside his home in Havana on March 1, on his way to join an LGTBIQ rally. According to his partner, fellow activist Claudia Genluie, he spent 13 days in “preventive prison” awaiting trial for various charges, including the “desecration of patriotic symbols”—an allegation relating to his 2019 performance #LaBanderaEsDeTodos, which saw the artist wearing the Cuban flag for a month straight.  

The artist was also charged with alleged property damage for an incident that occurred last year after he was arrested at an anti-censorship protest. Otero Alcántara says he kicked the inside of a police car while police assaulted Genluie for refusing to turn over her phone.

Still, the fight isn’t over for the artist. The state has not dropped the charges and his trial date is pending. If convicted, he could face between two and five years in prison.

“Otero Alcántara’s release prior to trial is entirely just,” says artist and activist Coco Fusco, who has been vocal in her support for the artist. “The state released him to stop the escalating protests and the international outcry.” 

Indeed, the artist’s arrest incited a furor among artists both in Cuba and worldwide, many of whom speculated that the charges were trumped up to punish him for speaking out against the state. More than 3,300 people signed a petition started by Fusco that demands Otero Alcántara’s release. The level of support the petition has received is a sign to Fusco “that Cubans inside the country are losing their fear of speaking out.”

“The situation is embarrassing for the Cuban government,” Fusco says. “Otero Alcántara’s has received support from a broad spectrum of cultural figures inside Cuba—that is a very rare example of solidarity and public expression of dissent from the state’s position.”

Otero Alcántara has been detained by authorities more than 20 times in the last three years. Roughly half of those arrests came in the past year, as Cuban authorities have cracked down on their enforcement of Decree 349, a law passed in 2018 that prevents artists from showing their work without approval by the ministry of culture.

Last week, Amnesty International publicly called for Otero Alcantara’s release, referring to him as a “prisoner of conscience.”

“It is absolutely shameful that the Cuban administration continues to stifle any voices that are not aligned with the official position,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, director of the Americas at Amnesty International, in a statement. 

“They couldn’t take from me my rights or my liberty,” said Otero Alcantara in an Instagram video that he posted upon his release last Friday. The artist thanked the thousands of people who spoke out against his arrest online, before closing with a promise: “We are going to keep producing art; it’s the biggest responsibility of our lives. We will keep fighting for a free Cuba.”

After an International Outcry, Cuban Performance Artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara Has Been Released From Jail

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Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, March 17, 2020

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression condemns increased criminalization and harassment of journalists, activists, and artists who exercise freedom of expression in Cuba

March 17, 2020

Washington D.C.- The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) express concern regarding the increased harassment and criminalization of journalists, artists, human rights defenders, and opponents in Cuba, and condemn arbitrary arrests and prosecution that seek to silence those who exercise the right to freedom of expression. Likewise, they urge the State to immediately release all those detained for exercising journalism, their rights to freedom of opinion, expression, and other political rights in Cuba.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur reminds the State that the use of criminal law as a mechanism to prosecute those who express opinions, information, or criticism of government authorities or policies, as well as on issues of public interest, generates a chilling effect that limits freedom of expression.

This office condemned in August 2019 the one-year prison conviction against journalist Roberto Jesús Quiñones Haces, of the Cubanet media, for the alleged crime of “resistance and disobedience.” Said judgment would be directly related to the coverage of a judicial process of public interest. Quiñones has been held in the Guantánamo prison since September 11, 2019, and his family members denounced that his health condition had deteriorated due to the hygienic conditions of the place. Likewise, he has been subjected to a disciplinary process for having published an article from prison on October 1, 2019.

In this regard, the offices of the IACHR and the UN Special Rapporteurs for Freedom of Expression have sent the Cuban State a letter requesting information, pursuant to resolutions 34/18, 42/22, 34/5 of the Human Rights Council, and article 18 of the IACHR Statute, to gather information on the sanction imposed on Quiñones Haces, they also asked about the lack of due process by the Cuban State and the motivation of the judgment against said independent journalist.

The State responded to this joint communication, addressing the special procedures of the Human Rights Council, and denied these allegations; It also stated that the “true causes” of the arrest and subsequent prosecution were “the disobedience, disrespect, and resistance of police authorities on April 22, 2019,” when he intended to cover a trial.

On the other hand, the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was arrested on March 1, when he was going to a protest called “public kiss” in front of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, against the censorship of a gay kiss in a film broadcasted on the Cuban television. The artist had been harassed multiple times in recent years, including 21 arrests linked to his public protests. On this occasion, Otero was accused of crimes of insult against the national symbols and damage to property as a result of an artistic performance in which he appears photographed with the flag of Cuba in different situations; the prosecution would have requested a conviction of between two and five years in prison. According to available information, the artist was detained for two weeks and was released on Saturday, March 14, but was not informed of his current procedural situation.

Regarding freedom of artistic expression, this Office had also expressed its concern regarding the sanction of decree 349/018, which regulates cultural policy and the provision of artistic services, which introduced greater restrictions on cultural and artistic expressions in Cuba. The decree requires the prior approval of any public presentation or exhibition by authorities of the Ministry of Culture and created an inspection mechanism with powers to close an event, if it determines that it is not in accordance with the cultural policy of the Revolution.

In the  most recent Ordinary Period of Sessions of the IACHR, Cuban civil society organizations also denounced that the detention of the political leader José Daniel Ferrer García, a member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba [Unión Patriótica de Cuba] (UNPACU), would be due to the political persecution against him. Recently, the IACHR urged the State of Cuba to comply with the precautionary measures adopted on November 5, 2012 in favor of Ferrer García, after receiving the information that he was again detained on October 1, 2019, along with other activists. “In Cuba we observe a pattern of manipulation of criminal law to hinder the exercise of political rights, in a context of lack of judicial independence. This case is of particular concern to us,” said Commissioner Stuardo Ralón Orellana, rapporteur for Cuba.

As for other forms of harassment against the press, the official restrictions are not new, but have increased in recent weeks. Independent journalist Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina was detained on January 29 at the José Martí International Airport, as he was preparing to travel to the United States to participate in a human rights event. The journalist, who was detained for 5 days and was prevented from leaving the country, stated that this occurred as a result of the accusations of human rights violations in Cuba by the Palenque Vision agency, which he directs.

For her part, the journalist for the independent digital newspaper 14yMedio, Luz Escobar, has been harassed on multiple occasions for her journalistic work, preventing her from leaving her home and forbidding her from leaving the country. In addition, she was reportedly cited by the Ministry of the Interior on February 26 by State Security agents who questioned her work as a journalist, accusing her of usurping the journalist’s legal capacity and threatening to harm her family.

In the Joint Declaration on the freedom of expression of the UN rapporteurs, OSCE, IACHR, and ACPHR on the independence and diversity of the media (2018) they expressed their concern about the actions of officials to curtail the independence of the media, thereby limiting opportunities for people to access credible and reliable news sources that offer a variety of viewpoints. “States have a positive obligation to create a safe working environment for journalists; guarantee the respect of the independence of the media; and respect the freedom of movement of both local and foreign journalists,” recalled the Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Edison Lanza.

The IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur have indicated in their recent Special Report on the Situation of Freedom of Expression in Cuba that state agents are the main source of threats and attacks against the press in the country, a practice that must be dismantled and sanctioned. The report recommended that the State of Cuba put an end to the harassment, including summons, arrests of any length, and judicial harassment of any person for causes related to the exercise of their freedom of expression, freedom of association, assembly, or other related matters.

Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, as well as article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed by Cuba on February 28, 2008, protect journalistic work, artistic work, and the defense of human rights. In such a way that those who express themselves should not be under pressure when carrying out their work, covering and/or broadcasting facts of public interest.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur and the IACHR have warned on various occasions about the use of vague and ambiguous criminal figures that do not comply with the requirements of international law to criminalize journalistic work, the defense of human rights, and expressions of criticism through social networks. In the same way, the IACHR in its Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression established that prison sentences to sanction expressions on public officials or issues of public interest are contrary to the inter-American legal framework.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression was created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) with the aim of encouraging the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the hemisphere, given its fundamental role in consolidating and developing the democratic system.

R55/20

http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/expression/showarticle.asp?artID=1169&lID=1