The following article is excerpted and adapted from Amnesty International's report, "Cuba: Government Crackdown on Dissent," issued in April.
Amnesty International believes that there are some 600 people currently imprisoned in Cuba because of their peaceful attempts to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.
Over the past decade, people wishing to exercise various civil and political rights -- such as human rights defenders, government opponents, lawyers, journalists, trades unionists, environmentalists and others -- have come together to form groups and many have attempted to register with the Ministry of Justice. The majority have simply never received a response, either positive or negative.
Amnesty International is only aware of one case in which a response was received. In December, 10 years after he had submitted the relevant documentation, Dr. Leonel Morejon Almagro (a lawyer) received a reply from the Ministry of Justice turning down his request to register an ecological organization called NaturPaz , NaturePeace, of which he is president.
The reason given was that another organization with similar aims already existed. According to Dr. Morejon, the official organization to which the letter referred was only established in 1993. Amnesty International believes that it was no coincidence that the rejection came at that time.
Since October Dr. Morejon had been one of the leading members of a new coalition of unofficial groups called Concilio Cubano , Cuban Concilium, and in fact has since then been imprisoned because of his activities with the coalition.
In 1991, Dr. Morejon was reportedly briefly detained, together with one other person, after they organized a demonstration in the name of NaturPaz outside of the UNESCO office in Havana to protest the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He said that he was told at that time that the existence of independent groups would not be permitted and that it was the task of the Cuban Communist Party to establish policies regarding peace and ecological matters.
Such unofficial groups have never been formally declared to be illegal and to a certain extent their activities have at times been tolerated. In the past, many members of such groups have been imprisoned, often for several years, on charges such as "illegal association, assembly and demonstration," "clandestine printing," "enemy propaganda" or "rebellion."
Amnesty International considers those imprisoned for such activities to be prisoners of conscience, as long as they have not used or advocated violence.
From mid-1994, however, when thousands of Cubans fled the country by boat and raft, the Cuban authorities appeared to change their tactics. Rather than arresting them and bringing them to trial, the tendency was to repeatedly detain them for short periods and threaten them with imprisonment unless they gave up their activities or left the country.
Following the establishment of Concilio Cubano in October, the level of this kind of harassment increased and there were signs of a deliberate campaign on the part of the authorities to discredit members of the group. On Feb. 15 an extensive round-up of members of groups belonging to Concilio Cubano began, with dozens of people being taken into custody for short periods and subjected to threats of imprisonment and physical violence.
Amnesty International believes that the reason for the new crackdown on what have so far been entirely peaceful activities is that it is the first time that the government of President Fidel Castro, which has been in power since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, has been faced with any degree of serious opposition of an organized and peaceful nature.
During 1995, there were three modest but important developments.
* Several lawyers, mostly belonging to an unofficial group called the Corriente Agramontista , Agramontist Current -- and in particular its president Dr. Rene Gomez Manzano, who went on to become one of the founders of Concilio Cubano -- began to speak out more boldly on issues relating to the justice system.
* Second, journalists came together to set up several independent press agencies, which also later joined Concilio Cubano .
* And third, in October, Concilio Cubano itself was formed when some 40 unofficial groups came together. Within a short space of time, the number of groups belonging to Concilio Cubano had grown to over 100. This sudden burgeoning of groups and activity clearly perplexed the Cuban government at a time when it was seeking foreign aid to resolve its serious economic problems and was under pressure from the European Union and others to improve its human rights record.
The Cuban authorities began to take measures against members of Concilio Cubano almost immediately. (Although most were detained, questioned and released, two were arrested on Feb. 15 of this year, then tried and sentenced to prison terms:)
On Feb. 21, relatives of Lazaro Gonzalez (one of four deputy delegates of Concilio Cubano ) were informed that he was to be tried on charges of "disrespect" and "disobedience." At the trial, which lasted three hours, Lazaro Gonzalez was found guilty and sentenced to 14 months' imprisonment.
(On Feb. 22) the trial of Dr. Morejon took place. He was charged with "resistance," apparently on the grounds that when plainclothes State Security police arrested him, he requested them to identify themselves and asked whether they had a warrant. He was sentenced to six months' imprisonment.
Amnesty International is calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Dr. Morejon and Lazaro Gonzalez on the grounds that they are prisoners of conscience detained solely for peacefully attempting to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.
© 1996 The Miami Herald.