Cuba to Prosecute People Detained During Recent Protests - WSJ
By: Santiago Perez (WSJ)
July 20, 2021 9:13 am ET
Hundreds of Cubans who took part in street protests across the Caribbean nation last week face charges of inciting unrest, authorities say, raising concerns among rights advocates of summary trials without due process.
The whereabouts of hundreds of arrested demonstrators is unknown and others are being held incommunicado without charges nine days after nationwide demonstrations rocked the country.
Cuban police have arrested an estimated 500 demonstrators and activists who were among thousands who poured into the streets on July 11 to protest against deteriorating living conditions, the lack of freedoms, and scarcity of basic goods and services including Covid-19 vaccines under the Communist regime.
The government responded to the protests by cutting internet and phone services and deploying so-called rapid-reaction brigades, police and Communist Party militants to take back control of cities and towns.
More than a week after the unprecedented demonstrations, hundreds of people are lining up outside police stations across the island asking about missing relatives. Those who discovered which detention centers their family members are being held at have gathered outside them to get in touch and deliver clothing, toiletries and food.
Most of those detained during and after the demonstrations are young people from the poorest corners of the country who have been held incommunicado, relatives say. Authorities have yet to disclose the charges on which they are being held.
“Some demonstrators have been released, but those who are seen as influential or more visible aren’t going anywhere,” said Danelis Iglesias, the wife of Cuban rapper Adrian “El Radikal” Zamora, known in his native city of Colón for his rebellious hip-hop songs.
Mr. Zamora and his wife were among those who participated in the protests. The following morning, just after Mr. Zamora got out of the shower, police officers stormed their house and took a shirtless Mr. Zamora to the police station.
“They took him away in shorts and flip flops, and we still haven’t been able to talk to him, let alone know what the government accuses him of,” Ms. Iglesias said.
Activists and relatives of detained demonstrators fear that the government will keep them behind bars for months if not years.
“We are convinced that behind these events is the hand of the enemy,” said Col. Moraima Bravet, head of the criminal investigations unit at the country’s Interior Ministry. “We will reach the instigators and organizers.”
Col. Bravet said on national television that the government will press disorder and disobedience charges against demonstrators who participated in violent actions and acts of vandalism. Activists say such criminal offenses can carry sentences of up to 15 years in prison.
Authorities have said demonstrators will face summary trials behind closed doors, which gives defendants and their attorneys little time to study charges or present evidence. Prisoner Defenders, a Madrid-based legal action advocacy group, said the Cuban procedure “flagrantly violates the guarantee of due process.”
Relatives say they are also having a hard time finding independent defense lawyers willing to confront authorities.
Michelle Bachelet, the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for the release of all those who have been detained “for exercising their right to peaceful assembly.”
But Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel said the protests were led by criminals and counter-revolutionaries backed by the U.S. government.
The Interior Ministry said one person died last week when a group of protesters attacked a police station in a town near Havana, and that several people were injured in the incident, including police officers.
The exact number of people arrested and injured is difficult to determine because the government won’t disclose that information. Cuban civil rights groups say that more than 500 people have been detained. Human Rights Watch estimates that the whereabouts of at least 300 people are still unknown.
After a first stage in which demonstrators were attacked and detained by security forces, the Cuban government is now erecting a legal facade to legitimize its actions, said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch.
“In light of the image problem that the government currently has on the international stage, it’s now resorting to criminal charges akin to the Spanish Inquisition, labeling political prisoners as criminals and terrifying the population,” Mr. Vivanco added.
Among those detained since the July 11 demonstrations are the artist Luis Manuel Otero, a highly visible figure among Cuban dissidents, and José Daniel Ferrer, the leader of Cuba’s most important opposition group. There are also dozens of professionals, activists, photographers and independent journalists held in detention centers.
Henry Constantín Ferreiro, who runs La Hora de Cuba, a news webpage, was detained as he was preparing to leave his house in the colonial city of Camagüey to cover the protests. He has been incommunicado since then.
Manelyn Morales, a friend of Mr. Constantín Ferreiro who works for a Catholic community center, said that authorities disclosed late last week several criminal charges against him, including incitement to violence.
“He is accused of carrying heavy sticks and stones, when he hadn’t even left his house,” Ms. Morales added.
Many others who were released after being detained at the protest have been placed under house arrest. They join about a dozen artists, independent journalists and activists who already had stay-at-home orders—an arbitrary measure that Human Rights Watch calls de facto house arrest. They include internationally known installation artist Tania Bruguera, who has posted photographs of more than a dozen police officers staking out her house, and hip-hop singer Eliexer “El Funky” Márquez, co-author of Patria y Vida, a rap song that became an anthem of the protests .
Hamlet Lavastida, another internationally known Cuban artist who was imprisoned on June 26 when he returned home after more than a year abroad, has been charged with inciting to commit a crime. The accusation against Mr. Lavastida was based on chats in messaging apps intercepted by the government where Mr. Lavastida discussed the possibility of stamping Cuban currency with pro-democracy slogans as part of a performance piece. The performance was never carried out.
—José de Córdoba contributed to this article.