Amnesty Accuses Cuban Government of Harassing Dissidents

Fernando Ravsberg 

Independent journalist Miriam Leiva believes the government’s strategy seeks to avoid the international outcry that accompanies long prison sentences. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES, March 23 — Amnesty International (AI) slammed the Cuban government for “harassment and the arrest of political dissidents, human rights activists, journalists and bloggers all over Cuba – actions that have experienced sharp increases over the last 24 months.”

Cuban dissidents believe that short-term detentions are a new government strategy for preventing opposition members from demonstrating in the streets – including the Ladies in White, who protest every Sunday in Havana.

AI states that after the release of prisoners of conscience in 2010, “the authorities sharpened their strategy to silencing dissent by harassing activists and journalists, who are subjected to brief periods of detention and public repudiation rallies.”

The Cuban government is said to consider dissidents to be mercenaries working for Washington, however when BBC expressed an interest in obtaining the official position on the matter, the authorities — as usual — refused to comment.

Short term detention

The Amnesty report says that “Criticism of the government in Cuba is not tolerated, and people are systematically punished with brief periods of detention and ‘repudiation rallies’ (…), intimidation, harassment and politically motivated criminal prosecutions.”

Miriam Leiva (a dissident journalist and a Lady in White member since 2008) explained, “The government has opted for short-term detentions to prevent the international backlash experienced with the 2003 trials, where sentences of 20 and 30 years were handed out.”

Dissident leader Hector Palacios said the leadership of the Catholic Church acted in a shameless manner when they requested that the police remove dissidents from the church buildings they had taken over. Photo: Raquel Perez

“Clearly the government doesn’t want any political activity on the street. The situation is tense and there’s a lot of discontent among the population,” explained Miriam, the wife of economist Oscar Espinosa, one of those who was convicted in the 2003 trials.

Opposition leader Hector Palacios argued, “This indicates the government is continuing to close itself off to any demands, because the Ladies in White are continuing to do what they did previously, but you can see how brutally they’re now being treated.”

Add to this the fact that “the Cardinal and the Catholic hierarchy fell into the trap by facilitating an embarrassing situation when they called on the police to remove people from the churches when they were only asking the Virgin for the country’s situation to change,” said Palacios.

Palacios was referring to the occupation of several Catholic churches by dissident groups a week ago. Following their refusal to leave the buildings, Cardinal Jaime Ortega asked the authorities to vacate those structures.

New prisoners of conscience

Amnesty denounced the thousands of arbitrary short-term arrests, but sources that have carried out research into the matter have come up with more specific figures, ranging from 2,700 to 3,800 short-term detentions. People have also spoken of the beating of detainees, though they were unable to cite any specific cases.

The Ladies in White were tolerated by the government through the mediation of the Church, but they again started being harassed after the release of their husbands in 2010. Photo: Raquel Perez

The human rights organization has now identified eight people that it considers “prisoners of conscience,” with these being the first ones since the massive prisoner release in 2010. AI is demanding their immediate and unconditional release, since they were arrested for “the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression.”

AI also demanded an end to the harassment and persecution of human rights activists, independent journalists and government critics and that no one be arrested or detained “for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of opinion, expression, association and assembly.”

The organization demanded an end to “Rapid Response Brigades” and “repudiation rallies” organized against people who express opinions at odds with government or who call for “reforms to legislation that unduly restricts the right to the freedom of expression, association, assembly and movement.”