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Prisoners in Cuba

Reports claim that Cuba has a history of arbitrarily detaining and systematically repressing people who peacefully assemble and express their opinions. Amnesty International has compiled a list of political detainees after hundreds of protesters were imprisoned in July 2021. Requests for comment on discussions for the release of inmates have gone unanswered by the Cuban government, and it is unclear what they may stand to gain from such releases. Furthermore, according to research by Prisoners Defenders, nearly 11,000 Cubans had convictions for "pre-criminal" offences, meaning they were penalised before they really committed or attempted a crime. According to Human Rights Watch research, many political prisoners are still behind bars despite some of them having been freed in the past.

On July 11, 2021, thousands of Cubans participated in the largest statewide anti-government protests since the Cuban Revolution of 1959. These nonviolent demonstrations were a response to the government's handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, long-standing rights restrictions, and a lack of food and medicine. Several demonstrators shouted, "liberty!" or "motherland and life," making reference to a Cuban song that criticises persecution in the nation and repurposes the government's previous motto, "motherland or death" (Patria o muerte).

President Miguel Daz-Canel ordered government supporters and security personnel to put down the protests with force soon after they started. We urge every revolutionist to take to the streets in support of the revolution, he stated. The command to combat has been issued.”

In this report, a variety of human rights abuses against well-known government critics and common residents are documented, including harassment, arbitrary detention, abuse-filled prosecutions, beatings, and other examples of ill-treatment that in some cases amount to torture.

Human Rights Watch determined that patterns of rights abuses that occurred in the context of the protests strongly indicate the existence of a strategy to discourage people from protesting, punish those who did, and sow fear to prevent significant anti-government rallies from happening again. Around 155 examples of abuse, including the 14 cases in-depth examined in this article, were documented throughout the course of our year-long research on the persecution of July 2021 demonstrators in Cuba.

Human Rights Watch has spoken with more than 170 Cubans since July 2021 to determine what has happened to protesters and opponents of the government since July 11, 2021. Interview subjects included abuse victims, their loved ones and attorneys, human rights advocates, and journalists. Human Rights Watch also examined court records, punishments handed down to demonstrators, news articles, and publications by Cuban human rights organisations whenever possible. Also, we independently reviewed images and videos that were posted on social media and those that were given to academics. An international group of renowned forensic specialists known as the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) provided expert advice on some evidence of abuses.

Most detainees said they were held in crowded and unsanitary prison cells, with little to no access to food, medicines, clean water, or protective equipment to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Many said they were subject to abusive and repeat interrogations in which they were often questioned about issues unrelated to their alleged crimes, such as their family or work. They said they were at times threatened with criminal prosecution if they refused to answer questions about the organization of protests. Some were beaten, forced to squat naked, or subjected to ill-treatment, including sleep deprivation and other abuses that in some cases amount to torture.

Dozens of detainees have been prosecuted in “summary trials” pursuant to Cuban law. Our research shows that protesters were tried jointly, often without legal representation, in largely closed hearings, on vaguely defined charges, such as “public disorder” or “contempt,” with evidence consisting largely of security officers’ statements.

Relatives of detainees, protesters, and activists said that Cuban police officers and state security agents repeatedly harassed them, and in some cases the intimidation forced them to leave the country.

As Cuban authorities take drastic measures to punish people who participated in the demonstrations, they have also taken steps to dismantle the limited space for civil society that allowed these protests to occur in the first place.

Many Cubans have fled to countries other than the United States, including in Latin America and Europe. Human Rights Watch research in the Darien Gap, a jungle on the border between Colombia and Panama, and in Mexico’s southern border shows that Cubans undertaking the dangerous journey north through Latin America face abuse by gangs and difficulty accessing legal status in the region.

The international community has for decades been unable to secure sustained progress on human rights in Cuba. In particular, multilateral pressure—including from Latin American countries, the United States, Canada, and Europe—has been lacking for years.

Efforts by the US government to press for change by imposing a sweeping economic embargo have proven costly and misguided. Rather than isolating Cuba, the decades-long policy has isolated the United States by enabling the Cuban government to garner sympathy abroad while simultaneously alienating Washington’s potential allies.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture, as well as other international treaties, are violated by the Cuban government's acts (CAT). They include the freedoms of speech and association, security and liberty, guarantees of a fair trial, and the prohibition on torture and other torturous, inhumane, or humiliating treatment. Cuba is one of the few states that has not yet ratified the ICCPR despite being a party to the CAT and having signed it in 2008. These rights, set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are also part of customary international law.

The United States, Canada, the European Union, and governments in Latin America should ensure a multilateral and coordinated approach towards Cuba that expresses support for the rights of Cuban protesters, journalists, and activists, and condemns repression in the country.


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