CubaBrief: Will international conference currently convened to look at police oversight in Latin America and the Caribbean look into police killings in Cuba?

There is an international conference looking at police oversight in Latin America and the Caribbean currently underway between January 18-22, 2021 organized by Amnesty International Américas, Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), and the Human Rights Centre University of Essex. It is called Police in the Spotlight. Hopefully, the conference will take a look at the lack of police oversight in Cuba.

The past year presents some disturbing police abuse cases that call for closer examination.

The past year presents some disturbing police abuse cases that call for closer examination.

Cubalex, a human rights NGO founded in Cuba now in the diaspora, reported that “Luis Alberto Sánchez Valdés (alias Lilipi) died on the night of January 2, 2021 at the Abel Santamaría Cuadrado clinical teaching hospital, in the province of Pinar del Río, after an “exchange” with police officers. Various versions circulated about the cause of his death. An official version claims it was an accident and another claims it was due to the use of force and police violence. On January 5, 2021, the weekly El Guerrillero de Pinar del Río published an official note from the Ministry of the Interior on its website stating that Luis Alberto suddenly fell off his feet and hit his head on the pavement.”

Luis Alberto Sánchez Valdés fatally injured in December 2020 encounter with police

Luis Alberto Sánchez Valdés fatally injured in December 2020 encounter with police

Cubalex shared information in the official note with Yasser Rojas who collaborates with an organization specialized in medical research. Regarding the injuries, he affirmed that a fall by Luis Alberto’s own feet is not enough to cause the injuries that are described in the government’s version of events.

Rojas “assures that from a kinematic or biomechanical point of view it is unlikely that a hemorrhage at the subarachnoid level of such severity would occur due to a fall of his own feet, taking into account the height of the deceased (approximately two meters) and the impact speed.” The fluid-filled space around the brain between the arachnoid membrane and the pia mater, through which major blood vessels pass is called the subarachnoid.

Dr. Alexander Raúl Pupo Casas also commented on the injuries at the request of Cubalex. “He assures that the MININT version is not credible. He agrees that it is possible to kill a person in a few seconds from a fall, if he receives a blow to the head or the upper vertebrae of the spine (cervical). He adds that an injury to the skull of the middle meningeal artery could still cause death within minutes from an epidural hematoma. However, he considers that it is not common for the injuries detailed in the official note to be the result of a fall to the floor.”

A pro-regime Youtube channel presented testimonies backing up the official version alleging that Luis Alberto Sánchez Valdés had fallen due to an epileptic seizure on the morning of December 8, 2020, and that the questions raised about his death were a smear job against the dictatorship.

However there have been other deaths that the regime has found more challenging to obfuscate.

For example, on June 24, 2020 in Guanabacoa, Cuba 27 year old unarmed Black Cuban, Hansel E. Hernández was shot in the back and killed by the police. The official version claims that he was stealing pieces and accessories from a bus stop when he was spotted by two Revolutionary National Police (PNR in Spanish). Upon seeing the police Hansel ran away and the officers pursued him nearly two kilometers. PNR claimed that during the pursuit Hansel threw rocks at the officers. Police fired two warning shots and a third in his back killing him. Hansel’s body was quickly cremated. This prevented an independent autopsy to verify official claims.

Hansel E. Hernández shot in the back by Castro's police on June 24, 2020

Hansel E. Hernández shot in the back by Castro’s police on June 24, 2020

On June 25, 2020 a woman, identifying as the young man’s aunt, posted on Facebook a photo of the dead youth who, she said, had been the victim of the national revolutionary police a day earlier.

“I feel deep pain for the murder of my nephew Hansel Ernesto Hernández Galiano committed yesterday morning in La Lima, Guanabacoa (in eastern Havana), by two patrolmen (police),” she wrote. “We, the family members, ask for mercy that this cruel act at the hands of our supposed national security does not go unpunished in any way. Because a police officer, a uniform, does not give the right to murder anyone in such a way. If we know very well that they are trained with personal defense, they must carry spray, tonfas, etc. Why then did they have to resort to their firearm and take a son from a mother, a father, a nephew from their aunt, a brother from their younger sister … Noting that he was NEVER armed, please, justice.”

On June 28, 2020 independent journalist Jorge Enrique Rodríguez was arrested and charged with “Fake news” for reporting on this police killing. The Committee to Protect Journalists has called for Jorge Enrique’s immediate release.

Over social media demonstrations were announced for June 30 to protest the killing of Hansel Ernesto Hernández Galiano. Other journalists in the lead up to the June 30th planned protests were detained or their homes laid siege to in order to stop them reporting on Hansel Ernesto Hernández Galiano’s killing and reactions to his extrajudicial execution.

Independent reporter Jorge Enrique Rodríguez jailed.

Independent reporter Jorge Enrique Rodríguez jailed.

Secret police began shutting off internet connections, cell phones and arbitrarily detaining those they suspected would take part in peaceful protests. Activists recorded or expressed on social media their intention to take part in protest actions. Some were able to message out when they were grabbed by the police, or their homes surrounded and laid siege by state security and placed under house arrest. Over seventy Cubans were successfully targeted “preventing” the non-violent action.

Meanwhile, the Castro regime launched the equivalent of a #BlueLivesMatter campaign that it called Heroes of the Blue ( #HeroesDeAzul ), but instead of something spontaneous from civil society or a police association this was a systematic campaign of the dictatorship at the national level in Cuba.

Human Rights Watch nearly a month later on July 28th reported that “Cuban authorities committed numerous rights violations in June 2020 against people organizing a protest over police violence, effectively suppressing the demonstration.”

Yosvany Arostegui Armenteros died while in custody of prison officials on August 7, 2020

Yosvany Arostegui Armenteros died while in custody of prison officials on August 7, 2020

Cuban dissident Yosvany Arostegui Armenteros died on August 7, 2020 in Cuba while in police custody following a 40 day hunger strike. He had been jailed on false charges in the Kilo 8 prison of Camagüey. His body was quickly cremated by the dictatorship.

Yale professor and author Carlos Eire writing in Babalu Blog highlighted Yosvany’s untimely passing and placed it in context:

It’s happened again. Another Cuban dissident has died in prison. Strangely, unlike previous hunger-striking political prisoners who received international attention, Yosvany Arostegui was barely noticed in social media and totally ignored by the world’s news outlets. He joins a long list of hunger-strikers who have been pushed to their deaths by the Castro regime. May his self-immolation in prison be the last, and may he rest in peace and eternal freedom.

Exiled Cuban lawyer and human rights defender Laritza Diversent over Facebook wrote:

I feel deep sadness and pain. I imagine how lonely he felt and how convinced he was that he preferred to exhaust his body until it was turned off. His death reminds me of the thousands of people who, in Cuban prisons, use their body to protest against unjust criminal proceedings. It makes me more aware of all the activists who, like Silverio Portal, are locked up as punishment for exercising their rights to free expression, criticize, protest, meet and associate.

On Friday, August 7, State Security contacted the family of prisoner Yosvany Aróstegui Armenteros to inform them that he had died during a hunger strike that he had carried out for 40 days.

Aróstegui Armenteros had been arrested a year earlier and prosecuted for two common crimes for which he pleaded not guilty from the beginning. Before this last strike he had carried out others with the same objective: to demand his freedom.

His brother, Yaudel Aróstegui Armenteros was not allowed to see him.

“Ten days before he died, they called my brother Yaudel Arostegui Armenteros, at the hospital to appear there, when he arrived at Amalia Simoni they told him that my brother was very ill. My brother couldn’t see him. A doctor who was there told my brother that the next call they were going to make would not be good, it was because he was going to die. And so it was,” Raidel Aróstegui Armenteros, who lives in exile in the state of Washington, United States, told the Center for a Free Cuba.

According to Raidel, his brother always said he was innocent of the crimes he was accused of. The family hired an attorney who conducted investigations into the case, but a week before the trial, the attorney mysteriously died in a traffic accident.

His brother thought he would be released, but upon receiving the 15-year prison sentence he began a series of hunger strikes.”My brother Yosvany Arostegui was a human rights activist. He was always confronting the political police. In Camagüey his actions bothered the political police. He always told me that the day something happened to him that he was going to plant himself in protest. That the day they did something to him, he was going to be planted and that the second Zapata in Camagüey was going to be him. And so it happened. Look how his death was,” he added.

Below is the interview with the Yaudel’s brother.

Hopefully, this international conference currently convened to look at police oversight in Latin America and the Caribbean will seek creative ways to report on policing in Cuba and the deaths of young black men in their custody. Leaving Cubans to the mercy of a police state now in its seventh decade in power is a human rights failure of the first order.

University of Essex, January 15, 2021

Conference focuses on police accountability in Latin America and Caribbean

Fri 15 Jan 21

Essex Human Rights Centre is to take a leading role in a new conference looking at police oversight in Latin America and the Caribbean.

A new conference, focusing on police accountability in Latin America and the Caribbean, will feature a range of experts from Essex Human Rights Centre.

Police in the Spotlight, which opens on 18 January, will feature Professor Clara Sandoval-VillalbaDr Carla Ferstman, and three of the Centre’s Fellows: Graham Dossett, Conor Foley and Aisling Reidy.

The five-day conference, supported by the Human Rights Centre, Amnesty International Americas and the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) Jamaica, seeks to foster dialogue between all parties through a range of panels, workshops and working groups.

Dr Andrew Fagan, Director of the Human Rights Centre, said: “We’re very happy to be working with Amnesty Americas and INDECOM on this important conference. Global media coverage over the last year has highlighted again the tragic impact of police brutality. Improving police accountability is essential if we are not only to stop the killings, but address issues like sexual violence, unlawful detention, police corruption and abuses of a range of other rights.

“To begin this work, we need to bring together all parties to engage in constructive dialogue and we hope this conference will inspire further projects, publications and discussions that move forward the debate, in Latin America, the Caribbean and worldwide.”

The conference will open with a panel featuring Agnès Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Joel Hernández, President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Erika Guevara Rosas, Director for the Americas at Amnesty International and Lidiane Malaquini of the Brazilian organization Redes de Maré. The panel will look at the state of human rights violations, police and accountability in the Americas from a regional and human rights perspective, with the discussion moderated by Colombian journalist Claudia Julieta Duque.

Graham Dossett, a former career police officer, will be taking part in a panel on Command Responsibility. He said: “It is imperative that law enforcers are not themselves law breakers and that they only ever use force or firearms where necessary, proportionate and lawful.

“Good, responsible command activity is an essential first tier in accountability. By observing and, if necessary, challenging police behaviour we can ensure there is no ‘mission creep’ and that police and security forces do not set their own operational and ethical parameters. Continued experience shows that oversight and accountability are still critically required mechanisms.”

The Human Rights Centre’s involvement comes against the background of ongoing work, in the region and on police conduct more generally.

In April 2020, Professor Clara Sandoval helped win a landmark judgment at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, supporting the human rights of LGBTI people across the continent, after a decade of litigation.

In June, members contributed to Tear Gas: an investigation, a new platform from Amnesty International which takes a comprehensive look at tear gas as a policing tool.

Members of the Essex Transitional Justice Network continue to work on issues across Latin America.

Reuters, June 30, 2020 

Cuba prevents protest over police killing of Black man

(A man is detained at the site where a protest against the killing of a Black man by police was due to take place in Havana, Cuba, June 30, 2020. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

(A man is detained at the site where a protest against the killing of a Black man by police was due to take place in Havana, Cuba, June 30, 2020. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini)

HAVANA (Reuters) – A raft of Cuban dissidents, artists and journalists said on Tuesday that state security agents had staked out their homes to prevent them from attending planned protests over the killing by police of a young Black man.

At least 40 dissident activists were also detained by police, according to exiled rights group Cubalex, with some later released.

Those included performance artist Tania Bruguera in Havana and the leader of Cuba’s most active opposition group, Jose Daniel Ferrer, who had been under house arrest in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.

Cuba does not usually comment on the detention of dissidents, which would give them more publicity. The government did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

No would-be protesters appeared able to make it to the site of what was supposed to be the main demonstration in Havana which was full of security forces. Some said state telecoms monopoly ETECSA had cut their mobile internet service overnight.

Protests against the state are rare in a country where public spaces are tightly controlled and Communist authorities are quick to crack down on dissent.

The calls for protests on Tuesday were triggered by news last week that police had shot and killed a 27-year-old unarmed Black man, Hansel Hernandez.

A woman who identified herself as his aunt denounced the killing on social media and called for justice, grabbing attention amid protests against police violence and racism in the United States.

For three days, authorities did not comment. But on Saturday, Cuba’s Interior Ministry issued a statement saying police had been chasing Hernandez, who had done jail time previously for other crimes.

Hernandez, who had committed an act of vandalism, started throwing stones at police as they chased him and hit one officer in the shoulder, throwing him to the ground, the statement said.

The officer shot Hernandez after firing off two warning shots, the statement said, adding that he acted in self defense and without the intent of killing him.

The Interior Ministry said it lamented his death.

Critics have denounced the government for not holding police to account by launching an investigation, especially given how quick officials have been to condemn U.S. police brutality, with extensive coverage in state media of the Black Lives Matter protests.

They also accuse the government more broadly of allowing police brutality and failing to adequately address racism in Cuba.

Cuba’s government prides itself on having improved the lives of Black Cubans by officially eliminating racial segregation after its 1959 revolution and providing universal access to education and healthcare.

But anti-racism activists say that by acting as if the issue of racism were resolved and suppressing debate over it, the government has prevented the steps needed to fully eradicate it.