By Eloy Viera & Jose Jasan Nieves
HAVANA TIMES — Ariel Ruiz Urquiola has a scientific background and chose to become a farmer. He lived and worked in Vinales, Pinar del Rio, on a farm which was given to him by the Cuban State under lease at no charge. However, today, this PhD in Biological Sciences finds himself in prison.
According to the Appeal Court’s sentence issued by Pinar del Rio’s Provincial Court, Vinales’ People’s Power Municipal Court correctly judged that Ruiz Urquiola “(…) addressed two Forest Ranger officials in a rude manner and told them that they were rural guards, while he filmed what he was saying on a cell phone with the intention of uploading it to the internet, so that the world could see who they were.”
The judges believed that: “Ariel’s actions and words were offensive and insulting to those who try to protect social order… because we all know what “rural guards” means” [the name used for Batista’s rural police].
According to Article 144.1 of Cuba’s Criminal Code in effect today, any offense or insult to public officials while they are carrying out their duties, qualifies as the crime of “Contempt”.
The basis of Ruiz Urquiola’s alleged guilt lies in the fact that the people he confronted hold “respectable positions in society… like safe keepers of peace… and strengthening the Revolution’s achievements.”
The crime becomes even more serious because the prisoner recorded what he believed to be abuse. The judges included a Ariel’s intention to record public officials’ behavior and actions as part of his criminal charges.
According to their sentence, Ariel’s behavior “(…) is frequently reproduced on Cuban streets and this forces judges to take more drastic measures.”
You can watch Ariel’s argument with the authorities here: https://youtu.be/VECbqPZBVXs
At a first glance, the “forcefulness” of the judges’ sentence stands out, which isn’t common at all for people with Ruiz Urquiola’s characteristics: a scientist, farmer who must have shown good social behavior to receive a piece of state-owned land rent-free, someone who promotes scientific advances in agriculture and a PhD involved in international research projects.
It seems that these weren’t enough reasons to consider another sentence other than jail time for him.
The judges could have given him a fine. They could have subsidized the sentence with penal labor instead of being locked up. But, they didn’t. Ruiz Urquiola had to be sent to a prison, immediately.
According to his sentence, the “personal background check of the defendant, carried out by those with the skills to do so, which allowed them to assess his real social behavior before these events” was crucial to reaching this decision.
Among other things, the judges pointed out the fact that he didn’t “(…)participate in political organization and mass events and he would meet with people who had poor social behavior.”
This isn’t the first time that his name has appeared in the news. Up until his arrest in May 2018, Ruiz Urquiola had accumulated a track record of arguments and friction with government authorities at different levels.
He was expelled as a professor from the University of Havana after he came into conflict with the administration, in a process during which Ruiz told international media there had been an “abuse of power”. Before presenting his doctorate thesis there, he had to wait over a year because of his assertion that sea turtles caught in Cuba were born in Mexico and Puerto Rico was considered problematic.
In October 2017, he was arrested by the Police on three different occasions because he demanded medicines for his sister, who suffers from cancer, by holding a hunger strike outside the Cancer Treatment Hospital. He has used every space he could to report what he believes to be his rights, including projects and media platforms that openly oppose the Cuban government.
This is why, for people following this case, he is really being punished for his political activism and not for the verbal confrontation that is shown in the video.
We don’t have anything to say about Ariel’s behavior and we aren’t a court to judge him. However, we do want to analyze his sentence, as a document which sets a precedent, a political guideline and proof of the bias that Cuban citizens are subject to.
Those who support the existence of a crime called “Contempt” claim that it is two-fold. First of all, it protects public officials against insults and/or criticism so that they can go about their duties freely. Secondly, it protects public order from the destabilizing effect criticism of public officials can have on the government, as finger-pointing reaches the position they hold and the administration they form a part of.
Those who believe “Contempt” to be unfair, claim that when there isn’t an “imminent and identifiable danger” for authorities (growing and scalable verbal violence), penalizing statements made to public official goes against people’s rights of freedom of thought and speech, which are guaranteed by international law.
Bodies like European Courts and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have established that “Contempt laws” unfairly give public officials protection which other citizens don’t have.
They also believe that this distinction inverts the main foundation of a democratic system which makes the government subject to review and held accountable. Including citizens’ scrutiny to prevent or control its coercive power’s abuse.
Freedom of speech is every individual and community’s right to participate in active, determined and challenging debates.
The type of political debate which encourages freedom of speech will inevitably lead to critical statements towards those who hold public positions. That’s why a law which penalizes critical speech towards the public administration affects the very essence and content of freedom of speech.
Stemming from these lines of argument, it’s clear that Ariel Ruiz Urquiola was legally sanctioned, but the crime he is being punished for isn’t in keeping with the latest international standards of justice today.
There is also a second thing to bear in mind, which is even more sinister. What has driven judges to take more “drastic” measures seems to have been his decision to film the rebuke of these forest rangers and upload it “to the internet”.
Filming has been used as something to prove his intention to discredit the forest rangers’ work.
Cuban media publish videos of foreign police abuses and conflicts every chance they get, yet it seems that these judges believe it is an insult for a citizen to try and record the actions of Cuban officials.
At a time when filming and live streaming police action is becoming more and more frequent in our country, where we can document clear physical abuse and abuses of power, this judicial ruling is setting an awful precedent.
Beyond how legal or legitimate the sentence has been, what has happened to Ariel should be of every Cuban’s interest.
The court sentence cloaks officials in a sheet of immunity while it stunts civil opportunities to report abuses and confront those responsible.
After nearly two months in prison, Ruiz Urquiola has decided to tackle this decision with a hunger and thirst strike. He has chosen to walk down a difficult and dangerous path. He has done this because he has no legal alternatives left to fight what, we believe to be, an excess of power.