At least 150 political prisoners, including 30 prisoners of conscience, were released, many on condition that they leave the country. At least 350 others remained imprisoned, including some 100 prisoners of conscience. Many political dissidents were detained for short periods or harassed. There were frequent reports of ill-treatment. Prison conditions sometimes constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. At least 10 unarmed civilians were shot dead by law enforcement officials who used lethal force unjustifiably. There were at least five executions. New death sentences were passed and several men remained under sentence of death at the end of the year.

In April Cuba escaped censure at the UN Commission on Human Rights for the first time in seven years, when a US-sponsored resolution was defeated. In October the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly demanded an end to the US embargo against Cuba for the seventh year running.

In August the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination considered Cuba's 10th, 11th and 12th periodic reports. It recognized that "Cuba had experienced serious economic difficulties as a result of the embargo." It also expressed appreciation of Cuba's commitment to "eliminate all manifestations of racial discrimination" and recommended that particular attention be paid to "the training of law enforcement officials in the protection of human rights."

A visit to Cuba by Pope John Paul ii in January was followed by the release of nearly 300 prisoners, including more than 100 political prisoners, 19 of whom were prisoners of conscience. Thirteen prisoners of conscience were unconditionally released in February, including Héctor Palacio Ruiz (see Amnesty International Report 1998). The other six prisoners of conscience were released in April and May on condition that they went into exile in Canada. Following the Pope's visit, suppression of political dissent continued, but was generally less severe than the previous year. In November, two pris-oners ofconscience charged with "enemy propaganda" – Jesús Chamber Ramírez (see Amnesty International Report 1994), imprisoned since 1992, and Dr Desi Mendoza Rivero (see Amnesty International Report 1998), imprisoned since 1997 – were released from prison "for humanitarian reasons" because of ill health, on condition that they leave the country.

Radamés García de la Vega, Vice-President of Jóvenes por la Democracia, Young People for Democracy, who was serving an 18-month sentence of "correctional work with internment" for "disrespect", was released in February, eight months before his sentence expired. Nestor Rodríguez Lobaina, President of Jóvenes por la Democracia, was released in October after completing an 18-month sentence for "disrespect" and "resisting authority" (see Amnesty International Reports 1997 and 1998). However, Nestor Rodríguez was detained again for a week in December after protesting at the government's refusal to let him leave the country to attend a conference in France marking the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On his release, he was ordered to go to Baracoa, Guantánamo province, and forbidden from going to Havana, the capital.

Six members of the unofficial Partido Pro Derechos Humanos en Cuba (PPDHC), Party for Human Rights in Cuba, arrested in Santa Clara in October 1997 (see Amnesty International Report 1998) remained in detention at the end of the year. They had been detained after starting a fast in protest at the arrest of fellow PPDHC member Daula Carpio Mata. Four of those remaining in detention were serving sentences varying from 16 to 18 months' imprisonment or "correctional work with internment". The other two – Lilian Meneses Martínez and Ileana Peñalver Duque – were being held in Guamajal Women's Prison, despite the fact that they had been sentenced to 18 months' "correctional work without internment".

It was estimated that at least 350 political prisoners who had been convicted of state security offences, many after unfair trials, remained imprisoned at the end of the year, including at least 60 prisoners of conscience and possible prisoners of conscience. However, the exact figure was not known because of the absence of official data and the continuing severe restrictions on human rights monitoring.

Several members of unofficial groups working in the field of civil and political rights, journalists working for independent press agencies, and human rights activists, were detained for short periods; most were released without charge. Many were subjected to other forms of intimidation, including being refused permission to leave the country with the right to return, and actos de repudio (acts of repudiation) organized by government officials, which involved being verbally abused and sometimes physically assaulted by government supporters. For example, following the arrest of Manuel Antonio González Castellanos, a reporter for the independent press agency Cuba Press, in Holguín in October, his family wrote anti-government slogans on the walls and doors of their home. The next day their home was reportedly surrounded by several hundred people who were shouting threats and abuse. Government agents then forced open the door and beat two members of the family – Yoani and Leonardo Varona González – and a visitor, Roberto Rodríguez Rodríguez. Yoani Varona and Roberto Rodríguez were released, but Manuel González and Leonardo Varona remained detained at the end of the year. All four were reportedly charged with "disrespect".

In September at least eight dissidents were arrested in a crack-down on anti-government activism. Most had taken part in a demonstration outside the court where the trial of Reinaldo Alfaro García (see below) was taking place. All were released without charge within a few days. Two of the detainees – Dr Oscar Elías Biscet and Rolando Muñoz Yllobre, President and Vice- President respectively of the Fundación Lawton de Derechos Humanos, Lawton Human Rights Foundation – were detained several times during the year.

Lázaro Constantín Durán, one of those detained for demonstrating on the day of Reinaldo Alfaro's trial, was arrested again on 10 December and beaten. On 17 December he was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for "dangerousness". On the eve and day of Lázaro Constantín's trial about a dozen people were detained, possibly to prevent them from attending the trial. All were released within a couple of days.

In November several people were detained outside the court where the trial of Mario Julio Viera González, Director of the independent press agency Cuba Verdad (Cuba Truth), was to take place. He was accused of "slander" to the head of the legal department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because of an article he wrote implying that the government was hypocritical in stating that the proposed international criminal court should be independent and impartial. All the detainees were released without charge, but the trial of Mario Julio Viera González had not taken place by the end of the year.

At least 30 political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, were brought to trial; most had been detained in previous years. Prisoner of conscience Cecilio Monteagudo Sánchez, a member of the unofficial Partido Solidaridad Democrática, Democratic Solidarity Party, who was detained in September 1997, was convicted of "enemy propaganda" and sentenced to four years' imprisonment in February. The charges related to a leaflet he had written, which was never printed, calling on people not to vote in the October 1997 local elections. Journalist Juan Carlos Recio Martínez, who was tried in the same case, was convicted of "other acts against state security" and sentenced to one year's "correctional work without internment". He was convicted on the grounds that he knew of the existence of Cecilio Monteagudo's leaflet, but did not inform the authorities.

In April Julio Cesar Coizeau Rizo, who had been detained in October 1997, was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for "disrespect", reportedly because he had written anti-government graffiti on public walls.

In August Reinaldo Alfaro García, a political activist detained in May 1997, was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for "spreading false news against international peace". The charge reportedly related to a statement he had made in 1995 to a US-based radio station in which he reported that a military officer had gone missing and later died and that a woman had told him that she had been tortured. At Reinaldo Alfaro's trial, which took place at the Havana People's Provincial Court, the alleged torture victim and the mother of the military officer both appeared as witnesses and denied the allegations. However, there were reports that the alleged torture victim who appeared in court was not the same woman who had made the torture allegation to Reinaldo Alfaro. In addition, several witnesses were not allowed to testify.

In September, four members of a dissident study group arrested in July 1997 after criticizing a document disseminated for the Fifth Congress of the Partido Comunista de Cuba, Cuban Communist Party (see Amnesty International Report 1998), were formally charged with "other acts against state security" in relation to the crime of "sedition". Their trial had not taken place by the end of the year.

Trials in political cases again fell far short of international standards of fairness. Defendants in cases heard by municipal courts, often only hours or days after arrest, sometimes had no legal representation. Detainees held under investigation on state security charges often had very limited access to lawyers while in pre-trial detention at police stations or at State Security headquarters and were sometimes subjected to psychological pressure, such as solitary confinement, long intense interrogations, threats and insults.

Several prisoners were beaten by police at the time of arrest or by prison guards in detention centres. In April prisoner of conscience Bernardo Arévalo Padrón was beaten in Cienfuegos Provincial Prison, Ariza, reportedly because it was mistakenly believed that he had distributed anti-government propaganda within the prison. According to reports, he was badly bruised and suffered memory loss as a result of the beatings.

Prison conditions continued to be poor and in some cases constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. There were allegations that prisoners were subjected to threats, discrimination on political grounds and verbal abuse. During the year, two prisoners – Jesús Chamber Ramírez and Jorge Luis García Pérez (known as "Antúnez") (see Amnesty International Reports 1994 and 1998) – were held in isolation cells where the lighting, ventilation and hygiene were said to be very poor. Some prisons were said to have a high incidence of disease as a result of poor sanitation and nutrition and a scarcity of water. The effects of the US embargo on the availability of medicines and equipment contributed to the problem. However, there were reports that medical attention and food were often deliberately withheld as a punishment.

At least 10 unarmed people died after being shot by the police who used lethal force unjustifiably. In May Yusel Ochoterena López died in Havana, reportedly after police officers entered his home and shot him, mistaking him for a fugitive who was apparently in the area. A police investigation was reportedly held but no one was brought to justice.

At least five people were executed during the year. Among them were Emilio Betancourt Bonne and Jorge Luis Sánchez Guilarte, who were executed in May. An appeal by Humberto Real Suárez (see Amnesty International Reports 1997 and 1998), who had been sentenced to death in 1996, was still pending before the People's Supreme Court at the end of the year. Several new death sentences were issued and several men remained on death row at the end of the year.

Throughout the year Amnesty International appealed for the release of all prisoners of conscience and urged that those facing trial for politically motivated offences be granted full judicial guarantees in accordance with international standards. Appeals were also sent on behalf of prisoners in need of medical attention. The organization called for all prisoners to be provided with nutrition, medical care and sanitation in keeping with the standards of the general population and for independent and impartial investigations into allegations of ill-treatment. No replies were received from the authorities.

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