Human Rights Watch Press Advisory - October 15, 1998
In the coming weeks, the Cuban government is expected to try four leading dissidents for sedition, a "crime against state security," although none of them has ever advocated violence against the state.
Recent high-level visitors to Havana, including the pope and the Canadian foreign minister, have appealed unsuccessfully to Castro for the dissidents' release.
Some commentators have suggested that international monitors should observe whether the Cuban courts are following established legal norms in the case. These well-meaning suggestions miss the point. The problem is that Cuban laws criminalize free speech and free assembly and undercut defendants' rights to a fair trial. These provisions allow the Cuban government to claim, with some credibility, that it adheres to the rule of law.
The Cuban government has detained the four leaders of the Internal Dissidents' Working Group (Grupo de Trabajo de la Disidencia Interna, GTDI), for over fourteen months in maximum security prisons, without trial. The dissident leaders, who have all been labeled counterrevolutionaries, are Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello, an economist, Vladimiro Roca Antúnez, also an economist, Félix Antonio Bonne Carcasses, a professor, and René Gómez Manzano, an attorney. Though the dissidents were arrested on July 16, 1997, Cuban prosecutors only charged them with a crime in September 1998. The prosecutors have announced their intention to seek a six-year term for Roca Antúnez and five-year sentences for the other three.
The Cuban criminal code serves as the foundation of Cuba's repressive machinery by criminalizing the freedom of expression. Cuba has repeatedly refused to modify criminal code provisions that restrict the fundamental rights to free speech, association, and movement.
BACKGROUND ON THE INTERNAL DISSIDENTS' WORKING GROUP
On May 5, 1997, the Internal Dissidents' Working Group (Grupo de Trabajo de la Disidencia Interna, GTDI) held a press conference in Havana encouraging a boycott of elections planned for late 1997. More than fifteen foreign press agencies attended the event, where the GTDI opposed participation in the election on the grounds that one-party elections do not offer the electorate genuine choices. The lack of government interference at the press conference marked a rare departure from usual government practices. The four prominent dissident leaders of the GTDI, Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello, Vladimiro Roca Antúnez, Félix Antonio Bonne Carcasses, and René Gómez Manzano, followed the press conference with the June release of a paper titled "The Homeland Belongs to All" (La Patria es de Todos), which offered an analysis of Cuba's economy, proposed reforms to the Cuban constitution, discussed human rights, and challenged Cuba's exclusive recognition of one political party.
On July 16, 1997, Cuban police arrested the four leaders of the GTDI. The Cuban authorities categorized the dissidents' peaceful protests as "counterrevolutionary crimes." The government sent each of the leaders to separate prisons, where they are held with convicted violent criminals and subjected to extremely poor conditions. Roca Antúnez is in the Ariza prison in Cienfuegos Province, where the prison authorities have failed to provide him with medical attention for high-blood pressure and restricted his family visits. Bonne Carcasses is in the Guanajay Prison in Havana Province and Gómez Manzano in the Aguïca Prison in Matanzas Province. Roque Cabello spent several months in the prison ward of the Carlos J. Findlay Hospital in Havana, where she received insufficient treatment for serious medical conditions, including breast tumors and a gastric ulcer. Cuban authorities are now detaining her in the Manto Negro Prison in Havana Province. On July 30, 1998, the four members of the Internal Dissidents' Working Group filed a habeus corpus petition. A Havana tribunal rejected it the next day.
THE CRIME OF SEDITION
The Cuban Criminal Code's definition of sedition explicitly includes nonviolent opposition to the government. Those who "perturb the socialist order or the celebration of elections or referendums, or impede the completion of any sentence, legal disposition or measure dictated by the Government, or by a civil or military authority in the exercise of their respective functions, or refuse to obey them" can face from ten to twenty years in prison, even if they do so "without relying on arms or employing violence." The provision explicitly serves to protect the "socialist order."
CRIMES AGAINST STATE SECURITY
Cuba defines sedition as a crime against state security. Other state security crimes include enemy propaganda and rebellion, two provisions that the government has frequently invoked to silence nonviolent dissent. While the crime of enemy propaganda explicitly violates the fundamental freedoms of expression and association, other state security crimes include objectionable references to preserving the socialist system and are defined in elastic terms that frequently have been used to punish the exercise of fundamental rights.
Cuba insists that it has legitimate reasons for charging nonviolent dissidents with state security crimes. But international human rights and legal experts distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate justifications for prosecuting crimes against state security. Some legitimate reasons to invoke national security interests include: protecting a country's existence or its territorial integrity against the threat or use of force; or responding to incitement to the violent overthrow of the government. In contrast, illegitimate justifications for invoking national security interests include: preserving a particular ideology; protecting the state from criticism or insults; preventing the dissemination of information about human rights; or, impeding advocates for nonviolent change of the government or government policies.
Charging dissidents with state security crimes affords the Cuban authorities opportunities to legally bypass dissidents' basic due process guarantees. Under the Cuban criminal procedure code, Cuban authorities may conduct warrantless arrests of any person accused of a state security crime, must hold the accused in pre-trial detention, and must try the person in a closed trial in special state security tribunal.
RECENT PROSECUTIONS OF CUBAN DISSIDENTS
Several recent trials demonstrate Cuba's willingness to use the criminal code to silence dissent. The Cuban government has also used short-term arbitrary detentions, warnings of future prosecutions, and surveillance to harass its nonviolent critics.
On August 28, 1998, a Havana court sentenced Reynaldo Alfaro García, vice-president of the Association for the Struggle Against National Injustice (Asociación para la Lucha Frente a la Injusticia Nacional) and a member of the Democratic Solidarity Party (Partido de Solidaridad Democrática, PSD), to three years for spreading false news. Police had arrested him on May 8, 1997, after he called for the release of political prisoners and denounced prison beatings.
On April 24, 1998, a Santiago court found Julio César Coizeau Rizo, a member of the Club of Ex Political Prisoners "Geraldo González" (Club de Ex-Presos Políticos "Geraldo González"), guilty of contempt for authority. The court sentenced him to three years for posting some twenty anti-government flyers.
On February 13, 1998, a Santa Clara tribunal sentenced Cecilio Monteagudo Sánchez, a PSD vice-delegate, to four years in prison for enemy propaganda. Cuban police arrested him on September 15, 1997, after he had drafted, but not published, a document calling for abstention from local elections. The same tribunal convicted Juan Carlos Recio Martínez, a local journalist with the Cuba Press agency whom Monteagudo Sánchez had asked to type the document, of failing to comply with his duty to denounce (incumplimiento del deber de denunciar) and sentenced him to one year in a labor camp without internment (correccional sin internamiento).
On March 12, 1998, a Cienfuegos court found five members of the Pro Human Rights Party of Cuba (Partido Pro Derechos Humanos de Cuba, PPDH), Israel García Hidalgo, Benito Fojaco Iser, Angel Nicolás Gonzalo, José Ramón López Filgueira, and Reynaldo Sardiñas Delgado, guilty of other acts committed against state security (otras actas contra la seguridad del estado). Police had arrested them in October 1997. The tribunal sentenced García Hidalgo and Fojaco Iser to two years in prison, while López Filgueira received a one-year sentence. Sixty-nine-year-old Gonzalo and sixty-six-year-old Sardiñas Delgado both received one-year sentences to labor camps without internment.
On November 18, 1997, a Santiago tribunal tried Dr. Dessy Mendoza Rivero, president of the Independent Medical College of Santiago (Colegio Médico Independiente de Santiago), found him guilty of enemy propaganda, and sentenced him to eight years. Cuban police arrested Dr. Mendoza in June 1997, shortly after he alerted the international press of a dengue fever epidemic in Santiago.
CUBAN CRIMINAL CODE AND CRIMINAL PROCEDURE
Cuba has rejected pleas to repeal provisions of its criminal code that violate fundamental rights. These provisions include enemy propaganda, a crime against state security that criminalizes dissent and independent reporting. Cuba's provision against contempt for authority (desacato), punishes those who offend high-ranking authorities with one to three years in prison. The criminal code's dangerousness (el estado peligroso) and official warning (advertencia oficial) provisions permit authorities to imprison or mandate police surveillance of individuals who demonstrate criminal tendencies but have committed no criminal act. Cuba retains on its books the crime of illegal exit, which prohibits unapproved emigration. Cuba's associations law effectively bars the establishment of independent groups, leaving members at risk of up to one year in prison.
Cuban legislation undercuts the right to a fair trial by allowing political figures to control the courts, granting broad authority for warrantless arrests and pre-trial detentions and restricting the right to a defense. The Cuban Constitution states that citizens have the right to a defense, but other legal provisions seriously debilitate this right. The government has banned independent associations of lawyers, while the judicial and prosecutorial authorities are highly politicized and powerful.
CUBAN PRISON CONDITIONS
Human Rights Watch interviews with former political prisoners, dissident groups, and prisoners' family members reveal that Cuban political prisoners face serious human rights abuses. Cuba's confinement of nonviolent political prisoners with prisoners convicted of violent crimes is degrading and dangerous. Many Cuban political prisoners spend excessive periods in isolation cells, both during pre-trial and post-conviction detention. Police or prison guards often heighten the punitive nature of solitary confinement with additional sensory deprivation, by darkening cells, removing clothing, or restricting food and water. Prison authorities punish political prisoners who denounce prison abuses. Punitive measures against political prisoners that cause severe suffering and retaliations against those who denounce abuses violate Cuba's obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which it ratified in 1995.
Whether held for political or common crimes, inmates endure severe hardships in Cuba's prisons. Most prisoners face malnourishment on the prison diet and suffer in overcrowded cells without sufficient medical attention. Prison authorities insist that all detainees participate in politically oriented reeducation sessions, such as chanting "Long live Fidel" or "Socialism or Death," or face punitive measures including beatings and solitary confinement. Prison guards in men's facilities rely on "prisoners' councils" (consejos de reclusos) to maintain internal discipline with beatings and control over the meager food rations. Prison authorities restrict inmates' access to receiving religious guidance, in some cases with interrogations about their religious beliefs. In some prisons, pre-trial detainees are held together with convicts and minors with adults. Minors risk indefinite detention in juvenile facilities.
Cuba's refusal to allow prison monitoring makes arriving at a precise number of political prisoners impossible. The Cuban government bars regular access to its prisons by domestic and international human rights and humanitarian monitors. In recent years, the numbers of political prisoners declined due to a general trend toward shorter prison terms. One Cuban human rights group estimates that, following the releases in the wake of Pope John Paul II's January trip to Cuba, approximately 400 political prisoners remained.