Are there political prisoners in Cuba?
Are there political prisoners in Cuba?
•June 10, 2016
Havana (AFP) – It was one of the most awkward moments of a press
conference that was full of them: when an American journalist asked
Cuban President Raul Castro about the fate of political prisoners on the
Castro, who had only reluctantly agreed to face unscripted questions
alongside US President Barack Obama as part of the latter’s historic
visit to Havana in March, reacted with an angry denial.
“After this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political
prisoners, and if we have those political prisoners, they will all be
released before the night ends,” he said.
Elizardo Sanchez would have loved to have been there at that moment to
hand over his list.
Sanchez heads the Cuban Human Rights Committee (CCDH), a
banned-but-tolerated organization that compiles an annual list of what
it calls political prisoners on the communist island.
It is the only group that attempts to keep such a list in a country
where trials are held behind closed doors, the lawyers are all paid by
the government and sentences are rarely made public.
Sanchez himself has spent eight years in prison across three separate
sentences imposed for his political activities, he says.
His list currently names 93 prisoners being held for “political reasons
or charged and sentenced in politically motivated trials.”
He says 51 of them are “prisoners of conscience” and 31 held for crimes
against the state. Another 11 are on parole after being convicted during
the so-called Black Spring, a wave of crack-downs on dissidents in 2003.
– Hard to verify –
The government and state media, however, question why the list includes
people who are out on parole, as well as prisoners convicted for
espionage, terrorism or trying to flee the island by hijacking boats or
“Those prisoners were sentenced for crimes against the state, which is a
political crime,” Sanchez responded.
The paroled inmates, meanwhile, have a “sword of Damocles” hanging over
their heads and can be put back behind bars anytime, he said.
The crimes of the 51 “prisoners of conscience” include taking part in
banned protests, public disorder and civil disobedience.
The longest sentences are 15 years, for Raibel Pacheco Santos and Jose
Ortega Amador, convicted in 2014 of “planning anti-government actions.”
Others on the list include former diplomat Miguel Alvarez, sentenced to
25 years in 2012 in what is believed to be an espionage case, and ex-spy
Claro Fernando Alonso Hernandez, sentenced to 30 years in 1996 for
revealing state secrets.
– New tactic: brief detentions –
The CCDH is respected, but international rights groups such as Amnesty
International and Human Rights Watch do not republish its list, saying
they would first have to be able to send their own representatives to
Cuba to verify it.
The last authorized international visit to Cuban prisons was in 1988.
“When Amnesty International does not recognize prisoners of conscience,
it is not because there aren’t any… it is simply that we don’t have
the means to verify all the information,” said Louise Tillotson of the
group’s Americas office.
Foreign governments face the same dilemma.
While US and European officials regularly condemn repression in Cuba,
they do not generally give figures on political prisoners, especially
since Cuba freed 53 people the United States considered political
prisoners as part of the former Cold War enemies’ watershed
rapprochement in 2014.
Sanchez frequently asks international organizations to verify certain
inmates as political prisoners, but says they are far too slow.
“Sometimes we propose a name. A year later they tell us they’ve
validated it, but we have to tell them, ‘It’s too late, the prisoner has
already been released,'” he said.
Others in a position to know stop short of endorsing Sanchez’s list
“Cuba has political prisoners, but perhaps not as many as some claim,”
said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue research center.
In any case, the regime has now shifted tactics, he said: rather than
give dissidents long prison terms, it uses “short-term arbitrary
This approach can derail protests, for example, but draws less
“The question of political prisoners becomes less relevant when the
state tactic is to avoid long-term imprisonment and multiply short-term
arrests,” said Amnesty’s Tillotson.
Last year Sanchez’s group counted 8,616 politically motivated arrests,
mostly short-term. In 2014 it registered 8,889.
Source: Are there political prisoners in Cuba? –