July 8, 1999
By Pascal Fletcher
HAVANA, July 7 (Reuters) - Cuba's prison population has been swelled this year by an influx of several thousand offenders convicted of common felonies and jail conditions have deteriorated as a result, a rights group said on Wednesday.
The group, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, estimated the number of political prisoners at around 390. It said this appeared to be slightly lower than at the start of 1999 but was still unacceptably high.
``We see an extraordinary increase in the number of Cubans jailed for common crimes,'' the commission, a non-government group that monitors human rights and penal issues on the communist-ruled Caribbean island, said in a statement. It cited ``unofficial reports'' from the country's prisons.
It said the crimes for which the new prisoners had been convicted were ``often related to the situation of poverty, unemployment, under-employment and marginality that sectors of the population are suffering from.''
``We are talking about an increase in the order of thousands, mostly young people above all,'' commission president Elizardo Sanchez, who is also one of Cuba's most prominent moderate political dissidents, told Reuters.
The report of a significant increase in convictions and jail sentences in 1999 tallied with what foreign diplomats have reported as a determined and sustained crackdown by the communist government against all forms of crime, ranging from prostitution to robbery and black-marketeering.
On February 16, Cuba introduced tougher anti-crime measures. This included extending the use of the death penalty to cover serious crimes like international drug-trafficking, sex offences involving minors and violent robberies involving firearms or attacks on police or officials.
Police recruitment was increased and hundreds of uniformed officers were deployed on the streets of Havana and other cities where they regularly stop cars and passers-by and check identities, bags and possessions.
Sanchez said reports from prisons indicated the influx of new prisoners had had a negative impact on prison conditions.
``There has been a relative deterioration in terms of supplies of food, medicines, clothes and hygiene items for the tens of thousands of Cubans interned in more than 100 prisons and labour camps,'' the commission said in its statement.
Cuba's government does not formally recognise Sanchez's group and rarely comments publicly on issues relating to political prisoners and offences or prisons in general.
The commission said it was ``difficult to understand'' why the authorities did not give public information about Cuba's jails or why it did not accept cooperation on prison issues from the International Red Cross and other humanitarian groups.
Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited
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