CubaBrief: Six new Cuban prisoners of conscience. Yandier García and Virgillio Mantilla should be too. Maykel Castillo turns 38 behind bars. Treasury sanctions three more Castro regime agents.

Amnesty International named six new Cuban prisoners of conscience yesterday from left to right in the image below they are: Maykel Castillo Pérez, Hamlet Lavastida, Thais Mailén Franco Benítez, Esteban Rodríguez, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, and José Daniel Ferrer García. They are prisoners of conscience jailed for their political beliefs.

Six new Cuban prisoners of conscience recognized by Amnesty International.

Six new Cuban prisoners of conscience recognized by Amnesty International.

Cuban artist and musician Maykel Castillo Pérez turned 38 years old today in a Cuban prison. He was born on August 20, 1983. Amnesty International offered the following background information on this new prisoner of conscience.

Maykel Castillo Pérez,known by his stage name Maykel Osorbo, is a Cuban musician and human rights activist. He is one of the authors of “Patria y Vida”, a song critical of the Cuban government that has been adopted as a protest anthem. On 4 April 2021, Maykel was walking in Havana when police officers questioned him and attempted to arrest him but desisted in the face of complaints from other passersby who considered the action unjust. On 18 May, security agents arrived at his home and arrested him. He is being held at the Pinar del Río Provincial Prison under charges of “assault”, “resistance”, “evasion of prisoners and detainees” and “public disorder.”

Maykel Castillo in the midst of a protest in San Isidro on April 4, 2021

Maykel Castillo in the midst of a protest in San Isidro on April 4, 2021

Eight days later on April 12, 2021 Maykel was the victim of a physical assault engineered by the secret police. Maykel was assaulted in Havana by strangers as state security agents filmed the assault. Maykel Castillo denounced the incident on a live broadcast through Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara’s social media .

This is not his first time he was jailed for a matter of conscience. On September 21, 2018 Cuban rapper Maykel Castillo Pérez, “El Osorbo” protested against Decree 349/2018 during a show in Cuba. Three days after the concert, he was detained by the Cuban secret police, and kept jailed. On March 20, 2019 Maykel was sentenced to one year and six months in prison, and learned of his sentence on April 22, 2019. He was released on October 23, 2019. Decree 349 is a law that further restricts artistic freedoms in Cuba.

Prisoners of Conscience: Yandier García Labrada and Virgillio Mantilla Arango

Prisoners of Conscience: Yandier García Labrada and Virgillio Mantilla Arango

Two other urgent cases among the hundreds ongoing are those of Virgillio Mantilla Arango, and Yandier García Labrada. They are also prisoners of conscience, who have been targeted by the regime due to their political beliefs.

Political prisoner Virgilio Mantilla Arango was sentenced to nine months in prison for “descato” [disrespect] in a trial that took place on July 23, 2021. Virgilio rejected the accusation that he called a police officer shameless (descarado) in a call made on July 22, 2021 from where he was being held in Florida, Camagüey the day before his trial that was published by ADN Cuba.

Virgilio completed an unjust seven month prison sentence on July 4, 2021 for his support of the San Isidro Movement. Following his release he made a statement to ADN Cuba on the conditions he endured during his captivity. The long time human rights activist and leader of the Unidad Camagüeyana de Derechos Humanos [ Camagüeyan Human Rights Unit ] described months of psychological torture, and how state security and prison officials weaponized COVID-19 to infect him.

“These were seven months of psychological torture, and attempted murder with the use of COVID-19 orchestrated by state security conspiring with prison authorities. I was infected on March 9th in the prison of Kilo 8, prison of maximum security, in the province of Camaguey, better known famously as “the 26.” With no crime or sanction to justify being in that prison. Inmates need to be serving sentences of more than 15 years to be in that prison.” … “On two occasions they placed inmates with COVID-19 in my cell. The first was an inmate called Oscar Rodriguez Gonzalez alias “El Gato” with COVID, later after I protested they removed him. On the fourth when they were going to take me out of the prison and return me to the preventive prison “Ceramica Roja” the introduced four inmates with COVID symptoms. I was not able to escape and on the ninth I emerged with COVID symptoms.”

Amnesty International defines a prisoner of conscience as someone who has “not used or advocated violence or hatred but is imprisoned because of who they are (sexual orientation, ethnic, national or social origin, language, birth, colour, sex or economic status) or what they believe (religious, political or other conscientiously held beliefs).”

Virgilio Mantilla before and after his last imprisonment.

Virgilio Mantilla before and after his last imprisonment.

Virgilio Mantilla was detained previously on December 7, 2020 for expressing his solidarity with the San Isidro Movement and wearing a white t-shirt emblazoned with “Todos Somos San Isidro” [We are all San Isidro]. He was sentenced to seven months in prison on December 21, 2020 for the alleged crime of “hoarding,” but the actual reason was for his support of artists protesting in Havana. The opposition activist was previously arrested for distributing historical documents to Cubans such as the Montecristi Manifesto signed by José Martí and Máximo Gómez in 1895.

Yandier was arbitrarily detained in October 2020

Yandier was arbitrarily detained in October 2020

Yandier García Labrada, a member of the Christian Liberation Movement was arbitrarily detained on October 7, 2020 for complaining about problems in food distribution in his home town of Manatí, and not released. According to the NGO Race and Equality, “he was held incommunicado for approximately a month, during which time he suffered beatings at the hands of security forces which left him with an immobilized arm.” He was not provided medical care, despite the injury. On January 7, 2021, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted a precautionary measure for Yandier García Labrada that they consider is “in a serious and urgent situation, given that his rights to life and personal integrity are at risk of irreparable harm.” For over eight months in the midst of a pandemic he was jailed at “El Típico” prison.

On July 23, 2021 Yandier García Labrada, received notice that he had been sentenced to five years in prison for the crimes of “contempt, assault, and propagation of an epidemic.

This is all part of an effort of the Castro regime to terrorize the many Cubans who “feel free” as the BBC reports today in an attempt to break their defiant spirit. In the BBC News article the following interview highlights what the dictatorship fears.

“In that moment, saying whatever you wanted to say, you felt free. It was an experience I would recommend to everyone of my generation”, says independent journalist Alfredo Martínez, who participated in the protest outside the Capitolio building, one of the most iconic buildings in Havana.

The Biden Administration continues to sanction regime officials linked to violence against Cubans. Roberto Legra Sotolongo (Legra) and Andres Laureano Gonzalez Brito (Gonzalez) of the Cuban Ministry of Revolutionary Armed Forces (MINFAR), and Abelardo Jimenez Gonzalez (Jimenez) of the Cuban Ministry of Interior (MININT) were sanctioned by the Treasury Department under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

Naming, shaming and holding accountable regime agents while identifying prisoners of conscience persecuted by the dictatorship are of great importance to reduce impunity and to protect human rights defenders in Cuba.

Gerardo Hernandez, headed the WASP spy network, & was one of five who refused to cooperate with USA

Gerardo Hernandez, headed the WASP spy network, & was one of five who refused to cooperate with USA

This is both a marked and welcome departure from the Obama Administration’s Cuba policy that commuted the double life sentence of Gerardo Hernandez who had engaged in espionage against the United States and a murder conspiracy that claimed the lives of three U.S. citizens and a U.S. resident on February 24, 1996 and released him back to Cuba in December 2014.

The former Cuban spy and murderer is now a member of the Castro dictatorship’s ruling Council of State, and charged with overseeing the Committees in Defense of the Revolution that spy on Cubans across the country. 

Gerardo Hernandez is also one of the dictatorship’s spokesman denying the regime’s response to the protests was violent or inappropriate in a text book example of gaslighting Hernandez says to BBC News on August 20, 2021, “there is no torture in Cuba, except in [the US military prison at] Guantánamo Bay where there have been some ugly cases.”

Mr. Hernandez fails to mention that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited the U.S. Guantanamo detention facility over 100 times since 2001, and that during those same 20 years the Castro regime permitted zero visits of the ICRC to Cuban prisons.

Nor does the former Cuban spy mention the decades of documented instances of torture gathered by international human rights groups, or its systematic nature.

In 1987 the documentary “Nobody Listened” captured Cuba’s human rights reality combining interviews with former political prisoners, archival footage of firing squads and other instances of repression. Former prisoners described show trials, extajudicial executions, and the systematic application of cruel and unusual punishment by prison officials that rose to the level of torture.

Human Rights Watch in their 1999 report Cuba’s Repressive Machinery documented the systematic nature of torture in Cuba’s prisons.

Cuba’s treatment of political prisoners violates its obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which it ratified on May 17, 1995. Prolonged periods of incommunicado pretrial and post-conviction detention, beatings, and prosecutions of previously-tried political prisoners—where those practices result in severe pain or suffering—constitute torture under the convention. Cuba’s heavy reliance on incommunicado detentions rises to the level of torture in some instances and contributes to the perpetuation of torture, since isolated prisoners are not able to ask for help.

Orlando Zapata Tamayo: Martyr for the liberation of the Cuban people. May 15, 1967 - Feb 23, 2010

Orlando Zapata Tamayo: Martyr for the liberation of the Cuban people. May 15, 1967 – Feb 23, 2010

These patterns of mistreatment have continued for decades to the present day.

Cuban prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo died on February 23, 2010 after years of physical and psychological torture that drove him to go on hunger strike. Prison officials periodically denied him water, during his water only hunger strike, contributing to his death. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a statement on February 26, 2010 that stated:

“Information received by the IACHR indicates that Mr. Zapata Tamayo had been subjected to torture and inhumane treatment in the Kilo 8 prison.”

Reforms of the Cuban prison system do not promise improvements in treatment of prisoners, but more sophisticated techniques of mistreatment. “In November 2019, Cuba asked Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service to train their jailers on “practices and methodologies,” Valeri Maximenko, the institution’s deputy director, told the press”, reported Julieta Pelcastre in Diálogo on January 30, 2020.

Yósvany Aróstegui Armenteros

Yósvany Aróstegui Armenteros

Yósvany Aróstegui Armenteros died on August 7, 2020 following a long hunger strike protesting mistreatment and his unjust imprisonment. His body was quickly cremated by the dictatorship. Yale professor and author Carlos Eire writing in Babalu Blog highlighted Yosvany’s untimely passing at the time 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.

The New York Times on January 13, 2020 reported that Cuba’s prison system holds more than 90,000 prisoners. Many of whom have been jailed for not having committed a crime, but potentially being a threat to the regime in the future.

“Documents reviewed by The New York Times showed that approximately 92 percent of those accused in the more than 32,000 cases that go to trial in Cuba every year are found guilty. Nearly 4,000 people every year are accused of being ‘antisocial’ or ‘dangerous,’ terms the Cuban government uses to jail people who pose a risk to the status quo, without having committed a crime.”

There exists the Orwellian offense of “precrime.” Sweden based NGO, Civil Rights Defenders, on January 13, 2020 reported that ” approximately 8,400 Cubans currently serve time for ”pre-criminal social dangerousness”.

The Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research, according to a January 13, 2020 article by publsihed by EuropaPress, found that Cuba in 2020 had the largest per capita prison population in the world.

This is the prison system that Cuban protesters are now confronting.

BBC News, August 20, 2021

‘We felt free’: Cubans remain defiant in face of protest crackdown

By Will Grant
BBC News, Havana

YAMIL LAGE/AFPScenes of protest like the one in July are very rare in Cuba

YAMIL LAGE/AFPScenes of protest like the one in July are very rare in Cuba

The unspoken rule in Cuba has long been: do not speak out.

Even during the island’s dire food shortages, most Cubans have coped with characteristic stoicism, taking care that their mutterings of complaint do not grow into loud calls for change, at least not in front of anyone in authority.

But 11 July was a day unlike any other in modern Cuba.

Months of pent-up frustration bubbled over – not just over food shortages but also the lack of medicines, long power outages, worsening inflation and the coronavirus pandemic.

As the demonstrations quickly spread across the island, the specific conditions which prompted people onto the streets varied slightly from place to place – a greater emphasis on blackouts in San Antonio de los Baños near Havana, more reference to the Covid-19 crisis in the city of Matanzas.

Yet all the protests shared one common chant: “Libertad”. They clamoured for liberty, freedom and change after 63 years of one-party rule.

YAMIL LAGE/AFP Hundreds of people were arrested

YAMIL LAGE/AFP Hundreds of people were arrested

“In that moment, saying whatever you wanted to say, you felt free. It was an experience I would recommend to everyone of my generation”, says independent journalist Alfredo Martínez, who participated in the protest outside the Capitolio building, one of the most iconic buildings in Havana.

He says the fear of reprisals quickly evaporated during such an unprecedented event.

“It felt so good to finally be able to protest in our own country. It’s only human to feel fear but that moved to the background because you knew you were doing the right thing – you weren’t doing anything wrong or illegal.”

The demonstrations were swiftly met with force as hundreds were rounded up by the police and a feared unit of elite troops called “Black Berets”.

International human rights organisations say around 800 detainees are still being held, including some who are underage.

Their family members say they were given summary trials and that many were sentenced without a defence lawyer present.

Anadolu Agency The Black Berets are a feared special unit of the police

Anadolu Agency The Black Berets are a feared special unit of the police

The Cuban government insists the detainees were correctly processed under the law.

Yet the mothers of the detainees are also gradually losing their fear of speaking out.

From the way Miriela Cruz constantly wrings her hands together when we talk, it is clear that the stress is getting to her.

Her son, Dayron, was arrested by the Black Berets but she insists he was far from where the demonstrations were taking place and had “nothing to do with them”.

Photo courtesy of Miriela Cruz Dayron is one of many Cubans still being held in the wake of the protests

Photo courtesy of Miriela Cruz Dayron is one of many Cubans still being held in the wake of the protests

“I have no idea why he was arrested, that’s the question we’re all asking,” Ms Cruz tells me near the hospital in Havana where she receives treatment for lung cancer.

“I’m not eating, I’m not doing well and that’s not good for my illness,” she says, bursting into tears. 

Miriela Cruz does not know why her son was arrested

Miriela Cruz does not know why her son was arrested

Desperate for information, she went to the police station to demand answers.

On being met with silence, she revealed a T-shirt beneath her top with the words “Down with the dictatorship!” on it.

She says she was immediately arrested, beaten and is now facing charges, too.

The Cuban government has refused to comment on individual cases but the island’s leadership denies trying to make an example of the protesters.

“If somebody believes that their trial was not fair, they have the right to appeal and I’m sure our system will consider their appeal. If it’s true that it wasn’t a fair trial, they’ll have another one,” says Gerardo Hernández, a member of Cuba’s Council of State. 

Gerardo Hernández says no prisoners are being mistreated

Gerardo Hernández says no prisoners are being mistreated

“As a revolutionary, as a Cuban who loves this country and believes in this system, I’m sure that’s going to happen,” he insists.

He also denies prisoners have been mistreated, saying, “There is no torture in Cuba, except in [the US military prison at] Guantánamo Bay where there have been some ugly cases.”

Mr Hernández spent 16 years in a US prison on charges of espionage and conspiracy to commit murder. He was released as part of a prisoner swap during the brief thaw in Cuban-US relations under the Obama administration.

He is quick to blame the US economic embargo for the protests, saying Washington should “let Cuba breathe”.

Following the 11 July protests, US President Joe Biden called Cuba “a failed state”.

His administration has spoken of “providing support for the Cuban people” but steadfastly refuses to lift the embargo which critics say would alleviate much of the pressure.

The US state department denies meddling in Cuba, saying the demonstrations were home-grown. “This is the moment for Cuban people,” US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Emily Mendrala told me.

“This was the Cuban people themselves making demands of their government that was driven by, in large part, exhaustion by the government’s inability to meet their needs. We are clear-eyed in the US government that this moment is about them.”

The mood music of constant political conflict between Havana and Washington is of little interest to Miriela Cruz, who still only has scant information about her son.

“All the strength I have left is for him,” she says. “Once he’s out of prison, I don’t care what they do with me.”

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-58255555

U.S. Department of the Treasury, August 19, 2021

Treasury Sanctions Senior Cuban Officials in Response to Violence Against Peaceful Demonstrators

Treasury-seal.jpg

August 19, 2021

WASHINGTON — Today, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned three Cuban individuals pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13818, which builds upon and implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and targets perpetrators of serious human rights abuse and corruption around the world.  This is the fourth round of sanctions since protests started in Cuba on July 11, 2021.  Treasury continues to target persons in connection with actions to suppress peaceful, pro-democratic protests in Cuba.  The targets of today’s designations are Roberto Legra Sotolongo (Legra) and Andres Laureano Gonzalez Brito (Gonzalez) of the Cuban Ministry of Revolutionary Armed Forces (MINFAR), and Abelardo Jimenez Gonzalez (Jimenez) of the Cuban Ministry of Interior (MININT).

“The Treasury Department will continue to hold accountable those who enable the Cuban government to perpetuate human rights abuse,” said Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, Andrea M. Gacki.  “Today’s action exposes additional perpetrators responsible for suppressing the Cuban people’s calls for freedom and respect for human rights.”

SANCTIONS ON CUBA

In addition to the sanctions imposed today under the Global Magnitsky program, OFAC continues to enforce the Cuba sanctions program.  OFAC administers an economic embargo on Cuba that prohibits persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction from engaging in transactions involving property in which Cuba or a Cuban national has an interest.  There are exceptions and licenses for the embargo to ensure that certain categories of activity are allowed, including for humanitarian purposes that directly benefit the Cuban people.  In addition, the Cuban Assets Control Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 515 (CACR), block the property and interests in property of all Cuban nationals (unless unblocked pursuant to 31 C.F.R. 515.505) — regardless of whether they appear on Treasury’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List (SDN List).  The Treasury Department will continue to enforce these prohibitions consistent with applicable statutes and regulations. 

VIOLENT REPRESSION OF PROTESTORS IN CUBA

Since the beginning of the July 2021 protests in Cuba, the Cuban regime has used security forces to suppress peaceful demonstrators.  Legra is the Deputy Chief of the General Staff, and Chief of the Directorate of Operations of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), under MINFAR, which deployed the Tropas de Prevencion (TDP), a military police unit, in response to the demonstrations.  OFAC previously designated the TDP pursuant to E.O. 13818 for being owned or controlled by, or for having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, Alvaro Lopez Miera, Minister of the FAR.  Gonzalez is the Chief of the Central Army, also under MINFAR.

Jimenez is the Chief of the Directorate of Penitentiary Establishments, under MININT; in this role, he is responsible for the treatment and disposition of people imprisoned in Cuba.  Cuban security forces have detained more than 800 people in response to the protests, with many being held in “preventative jail,” and the whereabouts of multiple people still unknown.  Once in jail, many are prosecuted by Cuban authorities in summary trials, with simplified procedures and often without the chance of hiring a defense lawyer.  Dozens of people have already been sentenced to up to a year in prison or correctional work as a result of summary trials.  

Legra and Gonzalez were designated pursuant to E.O. 13818 for being foreign persons who are or have been leaders or officials of an entity, including any government entity, that has engaged in, or whose members have engaged in, directly or indirectly, serious human rights abuse relating to Legra’s and Gonzalez’s tenures. 

Jimenez was designated pursuant to E.O. 13818 for having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, MININT, a person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to E.O. 13818.  MININT was previously designated by OFAC pursuant to E.O. 13818 on January 15, 2021, for being responsible for or complicit in, or having directly or indirectly engaged in, serious human rights abuse.

SANCTIONS IMPLICATIONS

All property and interests in property of persons that are blocked pursuant to the CACR continue to be blocked.  The CACR prohibits persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction from dealing in property in which Cuba or a Cuban national has an interest, unless authorized or exempt.  Additionally, pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Sanctions Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 583, all property and interests in property of the persons above that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons are blocked, and all transactions by U.S. persons or within (or transiting) the United States that involve any property or interests in property of designated or otherwise blocked persons are prohibited unless authorized by a general or specific license issued by OFAC, or otherwise exempt.  These prohibitions include the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any blocked person or the receipt of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services from any such person.

View more information on the persons designated today.

https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0327

Amnesty International, August 19, 2021

Fernanda Caudillo/Amnesty International

Fernanda Caudillo/Amnesty International

Cuba: Amnesty International names prisoners of conscience amidst crackdown on protesters

By Amnesty International

August 19, 2021 7:00pm

In the wake of peaceful demonstrations across the nation, Cuban authorities under the leadership of President Díaz-Canel have scaled-up a decades-long policy of repression that criminalizes peaceful protest and imprisons and ill-treats Cubans from all walks of life simply for expressing their views, said Amnesty International today, upon naming six prisoners of conscience who were detained in recent months.

“In response to the protests of 11 July, the Cuban authorities have applied the same machinery of control that they have used to target alternative thinkers for decades, but now amped up to a scale we haven’t seen in almost 20 years, and with new tactics including the use of internet interruptions and online censorship to control and cover up the grave human rights violations they have committed,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

“We’ve named six people prisoners of conscience – in a symbolic gesture to the many hundreds more who likely deserve the designation – and call for their immediate and unconditional release. The pattern of human rights violations we’ve documented in recent weeks points to a heightened policy of repression designed to claw-back control and re-establish a culture of fear that was punctured on 11 July.”

Thousands of people took to the streets on 11 July to peacefully protest over the economy, shortages of medicines, the government’s response to COVID-19, and harsh restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, in one of the largest demonstrations seen in decades. The authorities responded by detaining and criminalizing to different degrees nearly all those found to be protesting.

Amnesty International has called for the immediate and unconditional release of the hundreds of people who remain detained for protesting that day and has previously documented the authorities’ web of control over freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and how this has historically left many Cubans feeling that they have little choice but to leave the country. The organization has also tracked how the authorities have become increasingly sophisticated at censorship as the country has begun to move online.

Amnesty International has closely monitored the situation in Cuba, and between 15 July and 19 August interviewed more than 30 people, including relatives of those imprisoned, people who were detained and later released, NGOs, activists and other organizations following the situation. On 5 August, the organization wrote publicly to President Díaz-Canel and Cuba’s Prosecutor General to ask how many people had been detained on 11 July, where they were detained, and what they were charged with, but as of 1the time of publication had received no response. Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab also verified more than 60 pieces of audio-visual information in support of the research.

Amnesty International has documented the following crimes under international law and grave human rights violations:

Prisoners of conscience

The Cuban authorities arbitrarily detained hundreds of people for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and largely peaceful assembly in the context of the 11 July protests, according to a list developed by the NGO Cubalex and testimonies that Amnesty International has gathered. Most appear to be charged either with crimes historically used to silence dissent, such as “public disorder”, or crimes inconsistent with international standards, such as “contempt,” which targets anyone who is critical of the government.

The authorities’ default approach has been to criminalize nearly all those who participated in the protests, including some children. As early as 14 July, representatives of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of the Interior said on state television that they were investigating individual responsibility for the organization of the protests and the “crimes” committed during the demonstrations, and a Colonel indicated their approach would be to find those who organized promoted or financed the protests.

In an article published in the pro-government newspaper Cubadebate, and also tweeted by the Prosecutor General, as of 4 August, 62 people had been tried so far for events related to the 11 July protests, mostly for the crime of “public disorder” and to a lesser extent for “resistance”, “contempt”, “incitement to commit a crime” and “damages”.

Today Amnesty International is naming six prisoners of conscience – people imprisoned because of their political, religious or other beliefs who have not used or advocated violence. These emblematic cases represent only a tiny fraction of the total number of people who likely deserve the designation, but they serve to highlight some of the patterns of abuse being committed by Cuban authorities and the policy of repression that pre-dates the 11 July crackdown. Two of the six were detained on their way to protests that day; the other four were detained weeks earlier but are being held on similar criminal charges for freely exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly.

Amnesty International’s Prisoner of Conscience determination is based on the information available to Amnesty International regarding the circumstances leading to the person’s detention. In naming a person as a Prisoner of Conscience, Amnesty International is affirming that this person must be immediately and unconditionally released but is not endorsing past or present views or conduct by them.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara is an artist and member of the San Isidro Movement, a group that mobilized initially in opposition to a law which stands to censor artists. He was detained on 11 July around 3pm in Havana, after posting a video saying he would join the protests. It is believed he is being held at Guanajay prison, but the charges against him are unclear. Amnesty International has named him a prisoner of conscience on three prior occasions.  

José Daniel Ferrer García is an activist and leader of the unofficial political opposition group “Patriotic Union of Cuba”. He has endured threats and harassment in the past and has been imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising his human rights, for which Amnesty International has previously recognized him as a prisoner of conscience. On 11 July, José Daniel tried to attend the demonstrations in Santiago de Cuba with his son. He left his house and walked past the state security officials who constantly monitor him, but other law enforcement officials stopped him a few meters ahead. His son was the last person to see him when they were both detained together. Since then, there has been no formal record of José Daniel’s whereabouts, and the authorities have not allowed his family to see or communicate with him. Amnesty International believes that the concealment of his whereabouts amounts to an enforced disappearance for the purposes of Article 2 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, to which Cuba is a state party.

Esteban Rodríguez is an independent journalist for ADN Cuba, who was detained on Obispo street in Old Havana on 30 April along with some 12 other people for for peacefully protesting in support of Cuban artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who was on a hunger strike under severe police surveillance outside his home. After being diagnosed with COVID-19 in June, Esteban is now being held at Combinado del Este prison accused of “resistance” and “public disorder”.

Thais Mailén Franco Benítez is a human rights activist who also participated in the peaceful protest on Obispo Street on 30 April and was also charged with “resistance” and “public disorder.” After holding her under state custody in a hospital for a fall she sustained in prison, the authorities are now holding her at El Guatao prison, Havana, where her family fear she is not receiving adequate medical treatment.

Maykel Castillo Pérez,known by his stage name Maykel Osorbo, is a Cuban musician and human rights activist. He is one of the authors of “Patria y Vida”, a song critical of the Cuban government that has been adopted as a protest anthem. On 4 April 2021, Maykel was walking in Havana when police officers questioned him and attempted to arrest him but desisted in the face of complaints from other passersby who considered the action unjust. On 18 May, security agents arrived at his home and arrested him. He is being held at the Pinar del Río Provincial Prison under charges of “assault”, “resistance”, “evasion of prisoners and detainees” and “public disorder.”

Hamlet Lavastida is a graphic artist who was returning to Cuba after finishing an artistic residency in Berlin. After placing him in mandatory quarantine under state custody, on 26 June authorities took him to the Villa Marista prison/detention centre, where he is charged with “instigation to commit a crime,” allegedly for proposing an artistic performance in a private messaging conversation, that in the end, never took place.

Surveillance and house arrest

Physical surveillance is another tactic the Cuban authorities use to tightly control the movement of activists and independent journalists. This involves security officials being positioned permanently outside of a person’s house and threatening them with arrest if they leave, which can amount to house arrest. It is a trend that Amnesty International documented in December last year, when following an unusual protest outside the Ministry of Culture on 27 November, almost a dozen members of the San Isidro Movement were placed under frightening levels of surveillance for two weeks and faced arrest if they left their houses.

This practice has continued following the 11 July protests. Amnesty International’s Evidence Lab and Digital Verification Corps sourced, verified and geolocated 54 videos showing the surveillance of four activists and independent journalists – including Héctor Luis Valdés Cocho, Luz Escobar, and Iliana Hernández – filmed between 11 July and the 12 of August. The videos show uniformed and plainclothes police stationed outside the activists’ homes and sometimes engaging with them when challenged.

Héctor Luis Valdés Cocho told Amnesty International he had surveillance outside his home and was unable to leave for 16 days following the protests of 11 July. Independent journalist Luz Escobar said while she had surveillance stationed outside her home for approximately two weeks following the 11 July, she has generally had much more frequent surveillance since the November 2020 protests. “As a journalist it affects me hugely… the surveillance stops me leaving home” she explained. She says combined with internet cuts it makes it very hard to do her job as a journalist.

Like other independent journalists, Iliana Hernández could not leave her house on 11 July to participate in the protests. Analysis of the videos she filmed outside her home show police stationed on all road exits to her home between 11 July and 8 August.

Iliana told Amnesty International that since 11 July at least five officials have been stationed outside her home 24 hours a day. “If I go out, they kidnap me, they leave me inside a police car somewhere, they make a big show that they will charge me with something… then supposedly they withdraw the accusation, (and) they bring me home,” she told Amnesty International. While Iliana has previously had various charges opened against her, she says there is no court order mandating her house arrest, making the detention and surveillance she faces if she leaves her home arbitrary.

Another tactic used by Cuban authorities to restrict movement has been to formally mandate house arrest. Following the island-wide protests of 11 July, many of those released from prisons told Amnesty International that state officials told them not to leave their homes as a condition of their discharge, without clear information about any pending trials. House arrest of this nature is a precautionary measure under the law of Cuba (described as “reclusión domiciliaria”), where the accused cannot leave their home unless they have court authorization, except to work or study or deal with a health matter, and sometimes determined by the Prosecutor General’s office or court. Yet in these cases Amnesty International believes it will constitute an arbitrary detention if the person has been charged with crimes stemming from the exercise of their human rights and calls for their immediate release.

Even prior to 11 July, placing people under house arrest pending trial was a common tactic. As of 11 August, Mary Karla Ares González among multiple activists detained for protesting on Obispo street in April – had been placed under house arrest as a condition of her release from prison for approximately 75 days and still had no trial date. While she has on occasion been able to visit a relative, she says she has completely changed her life and has stopped going out for exercise, or to do food shopping. “I feel just as imprisoned as when I was in prison, even more so” she told Amnesty International.

Violations of due process and incommunicado detention

Following the mass detentions of 11 July, relatives of those detained, and detainees who have since been released, have widely reported a range of violations of due process rights, and incommunicado detention. While Cuba’s Prosecutor General’s office has denied that detainees have lacked access to legal assistance, or been held incommunicado, the testimonies gathered by Amnesty International indicate otherwise.

Rolando Remedios,a 25-year-old student and human rights activist was detained for participating in the demonstrations in Old Havana, and charged with “public disorder,” an offense which, as defined in the law of Cuba, does not meet international human rights law and standards because it is extremely vague. Photographs of his violent arrest in front of the historic Capitol building were published in media outlets around the world. Rolando was held in incommunicado detention until 23 July, after which his father was able to meet with him in the presence of law enforcement officials for about fifteen minutes and Rolando was able to communicate sporadically with his lawyer and family. He was released on 6 August, without being informed of his legal situation. Days later, authorities told him that he must report to sign in on a weekly basis and that the charges had not been dropped.

A woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of being detained again, told Amnesty International that she peacefully protested for the first time on 11 July because as a parent, receiving no support from the authorities, she was fed up with the system and not being listened to. She said she spent several days in a cell before being released on condition of paying a fine.

Another man, Pedro* who spent over two weeks in detention, told Amnesty International he was released on condition of paying a fine, approximately four times the average monthly salary in Cuba. He said he was detained by state officials dressed as civilians and wasn’t granted access to a lawyer for more than a week.

Many people like Pedro* cannot understand why they were released when many more hundreds who protested on 11 July remain imprisoned, with their families receiving little to no information about the charges they face or the reasons for their detention.

Miriela Cruz Yanis was detained in the context of the protests on 11 July. She alleges that the authorities’ hand-cuffed and beat her, denied her access to medicines for a chronic illness she lives with, and held her for seven days in prison. Her son, Dayron Fanego Cruz, 22, who she says has hypertension and asthma, remains imprisoned. Since his detention on 13 July, she has been able to speak to him briefly only twice, but authorities have not allowed her to visit him or provided written details of the charges against him. She thinks he may be charged with “contempt”.

Under international human rights law, all detainees should have access to legal assistance from the very start of a criminal investigation. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on torture has recommended this should happen no later than 24 hours after an arrest.

Despite this, multiple individuals who were released after being detained in connection with the July 11 protests, as well as relatives of others still detained, told Amnesty International they lacked access to legal representation. The authorities say defendants can – if they desire – be represented by lawyers. In practice, however, many who spoke to Amnesty International had little confidence in defence lawyers – who must belong to the National Organization of Collective Law Offices – a body closely controlled by the state.

Information gathered by Amnesty International also indicates that detainees and/or their legal representatives are not receiving sufficient information about the accusations, an additional barrier for a proper legal defence. Detainees are not promptly and properly notified of their rights, including the right to counsel, nor they are informed of the charges against them. In some cases, even upon release, those detained have not received information about their legal situation, making them fear that they could be rearrested at any moment, a clear contravention of international fair trial standards.

Detainees’ rights to communicate with the outside world, to notify someone that they have been detained, and to receive visits are fundamental safeguards against human rights violations, including torture or other ill-treatment and enforced disappearance. Despite this, multiple families told Amnesty International that authorities have failed to confirm where their detained relatives were being held, especially in the first week following the mass detentions. Amnesty International reviewed multiple court decisions on habeas corpus petitions that confirm detentions but do not disclose the place of incarceration, leaving the families of detainees without this crucial information. As party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, Cuba must guarantee that all detainees can communicate with their family, legal counsel or any other person of their choice, as well as keeping a complete and reliable record of arrests and detentions.

Amnesty international has also repeatedly received testimony that authorities are denying relatives visits due to COVID-19 restrictions. While cancelling contact might be acceptable in certain circumstances as a public health measure, this must be compensated by increasing other ways for detainees to contact the outside world, for example, by allowing access to phones, internet, emails or video calls and allowing families to provide food and other supplies, and there is no indication that the Cuban authorities are facilitating such measures.

Ill-treatment, including against women

The deployment of special forces known as “boinas negras”, police, and state security officials to detain people in the context of the 11 July protests has resulted in widespread reports of ill-treatment, including against women.

In interviews, relatives of those detained, as well as people who had been detained and later released, told Amnesty International, mostly on the condition of anonymity, that in the aftermath of the protests, law enforcement officials targeted young people they suspected of having participated, dragging them from their beds, sometimes without shoes or clothes, and carting them off to prisons in police vehicles. Many complained that prison conditions were cramped, damp, unhygienic, that no social distancing or other COVID-19 prevention measures were taken, and that rarely were they allowed outside.

Iris Mariño, an actress and independent journalist from Camaguey, told Amnesty International she joined the protests peacefully to ask for democracy and plurality and was detained alone on 11 July by a male state security official, along with two other male police officers.

In the 10 days she was held, she was moved to multiple different cells. According to her testimony, her husband spent around 30 hours looking for her in police stations, after she could not reach him in the one call she was permitted to make. It was 96 hours before any authority informed her that she was charged with “public disorder” and told her she could have access to a lawyer. She says at one point she spent 50 hours alone in a filthy cell, where she said, “I couldn’t even see the palms of my hands” – a practice which could amount to solitary confinement and ill-treatment.

Iris said she repeatedly informed officials of the bruising on her arms and knees that she had sustained at the hands of the state security official who detained her. But it was not until the tenth day of her detention that a prosecutor took note of her complaint of ill-treatment. Upon leaving prison, authorities verbally told her she was under house arrest until further notice, with some limited criteria for leaving her home, where, as of 15 August she remained.

Denial and internet interruptions

The Cuban authorities have developed a sophisticated narrative denying any human rights violations in the wake of the crackdown and placing the blame for the economic situation exclusively on the US economic embargo. While the US government should urgently lift the embargo, as Amnesty International has stated for years, responsibility for the policy of repression lies squarely with the most senior commanders in the Cuban administration.

Using their monopoly over state media, authorities have broadcast select footage of incidents of violence in the protests to mischaracterize them as violent overall. In a letter to the UN Secretary General, Cuban Ambassador Pedroso Cuesta denied any allegation of human rights violations by law enforcement bodies and described the protests as “violence and incitement to violence, vandalism, and other criminal activities…”

In a press conference on state television, the Prosecutor General and President of the Supreme Court sought to deny any procedural wrong-doing, or violation of international human rights law. The President of the Supreme Court insisted that the justice system and judges operate with independence and indicated that the media was publishing false information distributed by “enemies of institutional order and the Cuban Revolution.”

Since 11 July, the authorities have frequently disrupted internet access, in violation of international human rights law. On 11 July, there were countrywide internet outages and then a decrease in traffic until 12 July, according to network measurements gathered by Kentic. Since then, the authorities have also regularly blocked instant messaging apps such as Whatsapp, Telegram and Signal. According to a representative from the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), the technology used to carry out the blocking has become increasingly sophisticated, particularly since 2019, when the organization also noted blocking of media sites during the Constitutional Referendum.

This censorship by the Cuban authorities, who control the country’s only telecommunication network, has impacted the ability of independent human rights observers, including Amnesty International, to document at a critical time. Curtailing communication during the COVID-19 pandemic could also have serious implications for economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to health.

“Amnesty International calls on the government of Miguel Diaz-Canel to immediately and unconditionally release all those detained for exercising their human rights. We reiterate our historical request for access to Cuba to monitor the human rights situation and the upcoming trials of hundreds of people who remain in detention,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International. 

Recommendations

Based on this initial research, Amnesty International makes the following recommendations:

  1. The Cuban authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all those detained for the exercise of their freedom of expression and peaceful assembly

  2. Cuba’s most senior commanders must immediately end the policy of repression which violates human rights and is designed to maintain a culture of fear and quash all forms of dialogue

  3. Cuba must immediately grant the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders access to the country to document the human rights situation in the country

  4. Cuba must immediately grant access to independent human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, to monitor and observe the upcoming trials of the hundreds of activists and ordinary Cubans who remain detained

  5. Cuban authorities must ensure that the economic, social and cultural rights of the population are met, address their need for greater access to food and medicine, and provide an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic

  6. The international community must condemn the actions of the Cuban authorities in the strongest possible terms in all diplomatic meetings and international spaces

  7. The US authorities must lift the decades-old economic embargo against Cuba as it contributes to violating economic rights

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Duncan Tucker: duncan.tucker@amnesty.org

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/08/cuba-amnesty-international-names-prisoners-of-conscience/