Last Updated: Thursday, 26 May 2016, 08:56 GMT

Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Cuba

Publisher International Federation for Human Rights
Publication Date 18 June 2009
Cite as International Federation for Human Rights, Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Cuba, 18 June 2009, available at: [accessed 26 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Political context

On February 24, 2008, Mr. Fidel Castro was officially replaced by his brother Raúl Castro as President of the Council of State and therefore as the Head of State, following a vote by the National Assembly. This took place 19 months after all political and institutional functions had been delegated to him. In order to ease the dialogue, the European Union decided to definitively lift sanctions in June 2008. Nevertheless, as of the end of 2008, the drastic embargo imposed by the United States for the last 46 years remained in force. The latter has serious repercussions on Cuban fundamental rights, such as the rights to food and health.

The change in political leader coincided with the signing of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on February 28, 2008. This marked an important step towards a greater respect for human rights. However, in spite of what had been officially announced, at the end of 2008 neither of the covenants had been ratified or published at the national level. Moreover, human rights defenders and citizens who had petitioned the Government to make these covenants known to the population were victims of repression. Such repression took the form of arbitrary detentions, threats and harassment against the activists and their families, and in some cases prison sentences.1 In 2008, Cuba had a eight and ten years backlog respectively regarding the submission of reports to the Committee Against Torture and the Committee on the Rights of the Child.2 Whilst these human rights commitments with the international community could contribute to a greater respect for human rights, in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution in 2008 acts of repression continued against political dissidents, independent journalists and human rights activists.

Furthermore, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (Comisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos de Reconciliación Nacional – CCDHRN), at the end of January 2009, Cuban prisons were housing 205 political prisoners, including 66 prisoners of conscience, compared to the 234 at the beginning of 2008.3 These imprisonments were characterised by conditions that contravened, amongst others, the right to dignified treatment and personal dignity and the right to private and family life. The following violations were indeed denounced: over-crowding, poor food quality, acts of harassment and torture,4 violence, internment in punishment cells, transfers to penitentiary centres often far from the prisoner's family residence, deprivation of religious assistance, interruptions of family visits and deprivation of medical treatment. Moreover, prisoners of conscience and other political prisoners were forced to share their cells with common criminals, who were utilised by the authorities in order to harass the political prisoners.5 In February 2008, in a positive move, the Government authorised four prisoners to leave the territory due to their critical health condition, so that they could travel to Spain, on the condition however that they be considered as being into exile. In 2008, few prisoners were granted releases or suspended sentences for health reasons. Nonetheless, in 2008 the CCDHRN reported that around 100 prisoners had died following suicide, neglect of prison authorities or crimes committed by common prisoners. In addition to these long-term sentences and detentions, one could note an increasing trend in political and social repression through hundreds of short-term arbitrary detentions: in 2008, over 1,500 cases were registered throughout the country.6

In 2008, repression against dissidents and human rights defenders in Cuba continued to be a matter of concern and their harassment proved to be continuous. In addition, the legislative framework does not allow for the creation of independent organisations and associations as it is required that a State representative must participate in all meetings and the State must also be notified prior to any publication. Moreover, Article 208 of the Criminal Code provides for sentences of one to nine months' imprisonment for members of unauthorised organisations. Participation in radio and television programmes or the publication of documents that are considered to be in favour of the United States policy are also sanctioned with up to five years' imprisonment, which could sometimes lead to arbitrary detentions.

Systematic harassment of human right defenders

Individuals committed to fighting for human rights, in particular for the freedoms of association and expression, free access to information, the right to a fair trial and for a safer and more respectful prison system, continued to be subjected to acts of harassment by Government agents. Thus, threats, physical violence, constant surveillance through the telephone lines being tapped and interrupted, and systematic attempts to damage the infrastructure of human rights organisations were common practices. "Acts of repudiation" (actos de repudio) also became a common Government tool against civil society members, which consist in gathering Government officers as well as sympathisers of the regime in front of defenders' homes to insult and sometimes physically attack them. For example, Mr. Juan Carlos González Leiva, President of the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights (Fundación Cubana de Derechos Humanos) and Executive Secretary of the Council of Human Rights Rapporteurs (Consejo de Relatores de Derechos Humanos), was subjected to various acts of repudiation and harassment in the past few years. In 2008, his telephone line was suspended from the beginning of February till the end of March.7 In addition, on November 1, 2008, the members of the Council of Human Rights Rapporteurs were thrown out of the building in which they had based their offices for the previous 16 months, following pressure put on the owner by State security. The telephone line in the building that they subsequently used was suspended for a few weeks and the owner of the premises also received serious threats from State security.8 Furthermore, Ms. Laura Pollán Toledo, leader of the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco),9 a movement that has suffered from harassment since its establishment in 2003, reported that she had been followed by State agents on July 1, 2008. They would also have set up a security camera near her residence, which also housed the movement's official headquarters.

Arbitrary detentions of human rights defenders

In 2008, one of the most serious and common forms of harassment against human rights defenders was that of arbitrary detention, following sentences pronounced by a judicial system that is completely lacking independence. One of the charges used against them was that of being "socially dangerous with a disposition to commit a crime" (peligrosidad social pre-delictiva), which is liable to a sentence of up to four years in prison (Articles 72 to 85 of the Criminal Code).10

At the end of 2008, 55 of the 75 defenders and independent journalists who were arrested in March 2003 during a wave of repression against members of civil society remained detained in appalling conditions, including Mr. Normando Hernández González, Director of the Camagüey College of Independent Journalists (Colegio de Periodistas Independientes de Camagüey – CPIC), who is serving a sentence of 25 years' imprisonment. On May 7, 2008, after he was discharged from hospital, he was transferred to a punishment cell in Camagüey's Kilo 7 prison despite his precarious health condition. At the end of 2008, Mr. Oscar Elías Biscet, Founder and President of the Lawton Foundation, also remained detained, serving a 25-year prison term in a high-security facility.

Another case was that of Mr. Juan Bermúdez Toranzo, National Vice-President of the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights, who was sentenced on May 4, 2008 to four and a half years' imprisonment for three attack offences and one offence of damage to property, in a trial carried out under "extreme police security measures" and following three and a half months of "detention on remand", since November 21, 2007. In addition, on April 16, 2008, Mr. Bermúdez was pressured by prison authorities to make him take part in political activities that went against his own opinions. On August 7, 2008, he was beaten up in his punishment cell by a soldier, causing him serious side-effects. At the end of 2008, he was detained in the "El Pre de Santa Clara" prison, to which he had been transferred on August 12, 2008. Furthermore, on January 11, 2008, Messrs. José Luis Rodríguez Chávez and Jesús Rosales Cegraña, respectively Vice-President and member of the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights in La Habana, were arrested and subsequently released. On February 4, 2008, Mr. José Luis Rodríguez Chávez was again arrested, along with Mr. Leodán Mangana López. On February 11, 2008, the Municipal Tribunal of San Miguel del Padrón, in the city of Havana, sentenced them both to four years' imprisonment for being "socially dangerous with a disposition to commit a crime", in a summary trial held in camera and in the absence of their relatives. Mr. Rodríguez Chávez' wife was subsequently arrested for having protested before the authorities against her husband's arbitrary arrest. Although she was pregnant, she was transferred to the eleventh unit of the local police, and kept in jail for five days, without water and in inhuman conditions. On May 6, 2008, she was sentenced to a year's deprivation of liberty for alleged "disrespect".11 At the end of 2008, Mr. Rodríguez Chávez remained detained in the forced labour camp of the city of Havana, while Mr. Mangana López was detained in the Calderon forced labour camp, in the Alquizar municipality, in the province of La Habana.

Finally, the President of the Cuban Human Rights Movement "Miguel Valdés Tamayo" (Movimiento Cubano por los Derechos Humanos "Miguel Valdés Tamayo"), Mr. Julian Antonio Monés Borrero, was arbitrarily arrested on September 30, 2008, after having been physically attacked three days before by a plain-clothes recruit, who beat him up for wearing a white pull-over with the words "Change" printed on it. On his first day in prison, he began a 43-day hunger strike to demand his release. On November 26, 2008, he was sentenced to three years of deprivation of liberty for "outrage to authority" by the Municipal Tribunal of Baracoa, in the Guantanamo province, although it was demonstrated that the testimony used against him was false. On December 12, 2008, the sentence was confirmed on appeal. Both trials led to strong repressive measures from the authorities, which carried out a series of operations to prevent human rights activists from attending the trials. Several activists were arrested or placed under house arrest. At the end of 2008, Mr. Monés Borrero was detained in the Boniato provincial prison in Santiago de Cuba.12

Obstacles to the freedom of peaceful assembly

In 2008, defenders that dared to meet and demonstrate in favour of the defence of human rights were discredited and saw their activities being hindered, not only by State security agents, some of which were dressed in plain clothes, but also by the Cuban civil population. For instance, the crowd branded the Ladies in White as "terrorists", "prostitutes", "murderers", "mercenaries" and "bastards" during a peaceful rally held on March 15, 2008. On April 21, 2008, a group of about 100 people, including civilians and policemen, assaulted Ms. Laura Pollán Toledo, Ms. Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva, Ms. Dolia Leal, Ms. Berta Soler and Ms. Noelia Pedraza, members of the Ladies in White, who were accompanied by women from the Martha Abreu Feminine Movement (Movimiento Femenino Martha Abreu) and the Peace, Love and Freedom Movement (Movimiento Paz, Amor y Libertad), from Villa Clara and Matanzas.13 They were violently thrown out of the Square of the Revolution, where they were peacefully demonstrating in order to hand over a letter to the Ministry of Interior, Mr. Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, and request a meeting with him to discuss the release of their imprisoned husbands. Besides, on May 25, 2008, during a demonstration in Placetas in honour of Pedro Luis Boitel,14 demonstrators were attacked and arrested by the police,15 including Messrs. Ángel Raúl Pérez Gavilán, Ricardo Pupo Sierra, Alejandro Tur Valladares and Marte Antonio Valdes Ibargollín,16 members of the Council of Human Rights Rapporteurs. They were released the following day.

Obstacles to the freedom of movement

Obstacles to the freedom of movement continued to be common practice in 2008, in particular through the requirement of a "white card", a type of visa or permit for anyone leaving or re-entering Cuba. The implementation of this measure meant that various human rights defenders were unable to leave their country when invited by foreign Governments or international NGOs. For instance, Mr. Elizardo Sánchez, a founding member of the CCDHRN, has not been able to leave Cuba for the past seven years. Cuban authorities prevented him from leaving again in June 2008, while he had been invited to participate in a seminar on migration organised by FIDH on June 16, 17 and 18 in Mexico, although Mexico had granted him a visa.

Urgent Interventions issued by The Observatory in 200817

Names of human rights defenders / NGOsViolationsIntervention ReferenceDate of Issuance
Ladies in WhiteHarassment / Acts of repudiationUrgent Appeal CUB 001/0308/OBS042March 25, 2008
Ladies in White / Ms. Laura Pollán ToledoHarassmentUrgent Appeal CUB 001/0308/OBSJuly 4, 2008
Mr. Juan Bermúdez ToranzoArbitrary detention / Harassment / Lack of medical attentionUrgent Appeal CUB 002/1107/OBSApril 22, 2008

1 See Cuban Democratic Directory (Directorio Democratico Cubano).

2 See Human Rights Council, Compilation prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in accordance with paragraph 15(b) of the Annex to Human Rights Council Resolution 5/1 – Cuba, UN Document A/HRC/WG.6/4/CUB/ 2, December 18, 2008.

3 See Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), Cuba en el año 2009: La situacion de derechos civiles, politicos y económicos, February 2, 2009.

4 See Cuban Democratic Directory.

5 Idem.

6 See Council of Human Rights Rapporteurs of Cuba (Consejo de Relatores de Derechos Humanos de Cuba).

7 See Council of Human Rights Rapporteurs, Informe del Primer Semestre de 2008, July 22, 2008.

8 See Council of Human Rights Rapporteurs, Informe Anual 2008, January 13, 2009.

9 Ladies in White emerged spontaneously in April 2003, when a group of brave and worthy women suffered the unjust imprisonment of their relatives during a period known as the Black Spring of 2003. Today, the group gathers women with different creeds and ideologies from all around Cuba, united by the steady aim of achieving the release of their relatives.

10 There are no exact figures but, according to the CCDHRN, it is alleged that several thousands Cubans are imprisoned under this charge, including human rights defenders.

11 See Council of Human Rights Rapporteurs.

12 See Cuban Democratic Directory.

13 See Coalition of Cuban-American Women (Coalición de Mujeres Cubano-Americanas).

14 Disappointed by the turn the Cuban Revolution was taking, the student leader Pedro Luis Boitel created the underground organisation "Movement to Recover the Revolution" (Movimiento para Recuperar la Revolución – MMR), for which he was arrested in 1961 and accused of conspiring against the State. He died in prison in 1972 after carrying out an hunger strike for 53 days as well as undergoing several years of ill-treatments and torture. Despite the four requests the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights made between 1966 and 1972 to put an end to the violation of his human rights, the Cuban Government never reacted. Today, Mr. Boitel is considered as the emblem of peaceful resistance against the oppression of the Castro regime.

15 On May 25, 2008, the following human rights activists were arrested in several cities in the framework of commemorative acts in memory of Pedro Luis Boitel: Mr. Jorge Luis García Pérez Antúnez, Ms. Nitza Rivas Hernández, Ms. Ana Margarita Perdigón Brito, Mr Bienvenido Perdigón Pacheco, Mr. Jorge Toledo Figueroa, Mr. Alejandro Tur Valladares, Mr. Ricardo Pupo Sierra, Mr. Guillermo Pérez Yera, Mr. Benito Ortega Suarez, Mr. Ernesto Mederos Arozarena, Mr. Jesús Raúl Figueroa Castro, Mr. Ángel Raúl Pérez Gavilán, Ms. Donaida Pérez Paseiro, Mr. Fernando Díaz Hernández, Mr. Freddy Yoel Martín Fraga, Mr. Fidel Rodríguez García, Mr. Luis Sarriá Hernández, Mr. Lenin Córdova García, Mr. Alejandro Gabriel Martínez Martínez, Mr. Loreto Hernández García, Mr. Marte Antonio Valdés Ibargollín, Mr. Blas Fortún Martínez, Mr. Amado Ruiz Moreno, Ms. Idania Yánes Contreras, Ms. Yesmi Elena Mena Zurbano, Mr. Yuniesky García López, Mr. Jorge Luís Artiles Montiel, Mr. Lázaro de Armas, Mr. Carlos Michael Morales Rodríguez, Mr. Ángel Luís Gallardo Mena, Mr. José Abreu Álvarez, Mr. Luís Silvano Agüero Hernández and Ms. Olga Lidia Dárias Barroso. Subsequent to these arrests, the State security sent Government related groups to the house of Mr. Jorge Luis García Pérez "Antúnez" to commit a "repudiation act" against his wife and other activists who were gathered there. All detained activists were released on the following day. See Cuban Democratic Directory.

16 See Council of Human Rights Rapporteurs, Informe Anual 2008, January 13, 2009.

17 See the Compilation of cases in the CD-Rom attached to this report.

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