Thursday, July 13, 2017

China's Liu Xiaobo and Cuba's Sebastián Arcos Bergnes: Parallel lives that ended in politically motivated medical neglect

"I hope that I will be the last victim of China's endless literary inquisitions and that from now on no one will be incriminated because of speech." - Liu Xiaobo, I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement 2009
 
Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia

Today when news broke that Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo had died of "multiple organ failure" while still under the custody of the Chinese communists. Friends and family had expressed concern that he was not receiving proper medical care.

The nonviolent dissident, scholar and prisoner of conscience was arrested on June 23, 2009 and charged with “inciting subversion of state power” for co-authoring Charter 08, a declaration calling for political reform, greater human rights, and an end to one-party rule in China. Still imprisoned from the June 2009 arrest he was sentenced to 11 years in prison on December 25, 2009 following a political show trial. 

Liu Xiaobo was told by prison authorities on October 9, 2010 that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize. When his wife Liu Xia visited him in prison the prisoner of conscience told her: “This is for the lost souls of June 4th.” Dedicating the prize to the demonstrators killed in Tiananmen Square  on June 4, 1989. Liu Xia was placed under house arrest after returning home from visiting her jailed husband Liu Xiaobo, and communications and visitors curtailed. Activists that wanted to gather and celebrate Liu Xiaobo’s award were also detained.

Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia in happier times
 Less than a month ago Chinese communist authorities made public that he had been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer but his access and movement continue to be restricted. His wife, Liu Xia said that her husband, according to The Guardian, "cannot be given surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy," allegedly "because the cancer is so advanced." Chinese Human Rights Defenders had reported that individuals in custody, like Liu Xiaobo, have been denied medical treatment and that this is a life threatening form of torture. The NGO called for him to be freed and allowed to choose doctors and treatment. Liu Xiaobo had wanted to obtain medical care for his cancer outside of China but his request was denied by regime officials.

Upon hearing the news of the late cancer diagnosis and the possible use of the denial of medical treatment as punishment for dissent the case of Cuban human rights defender Sebastián Arcos Bergnes came to mind. Although Beijing is 7,913 miles from Havana with a very different language, culture and history both share something in common: they are communist dictatorships. Both Liu Xiaobo and Arcos Bergnes were nonviolent dissidents, the Cuban activist had also played a historic role in the Cuban revolution but quickly grown disillusioned with the failure to restore democracy following the end of the Batista regime.

In 1982 at the Combinado de Este prison Gustavo Arcos Bergnes and his younger brother, Sebastián Arcos Bergnes, joined the Cuban Committee for Human Rights. The brothers had been imprisoned in 1981 for trying to leave the country illegally. The two brothers had fought alongside Fidel Castro in the 1950s against the Batista dictatorship. Gustavo had participated in the July 26, 1953 attack on the Moncada military barracks and was wounded during the assault, an injury that plagued him for the rest of his long life. Shortly after his release from prison in 1988, Gustavo Arcos succeeded the committee’s founding executive director, Dr. Bofill, who was forced into exile in 1987.

On January 13, 1992 the executive board of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights again issued a statement reaffirming their commitment to nonviolence and calling for dialogue: "Violence is not and cannot be the solution to our problems... We will not tire from insisting that the only possible solution is civilized discussion of our differences. This is an appeal to Cubans for wisdom and common sense... No act of violence is justified... Let us say no to violence and learn to live in peace."

Sebastián Arcos Bergnes in front of his home on May 31, 1995 following his release
Two days later, Sebastián Arcos Bergnes, his brother Gustavo and another Cuban Committee for Human Rights activists were arrested at their homes in Havana. The others were released after approximately 24 hours. Sebastian Arcos Bergnes was charged with "enemy propaganda" and "inciting rebellion," he was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison. Sebastian was transferred to Ariza Prison in  Cienfuegos Province,  more than 130 miles from Havana, where he was imprisoned alongside dangerous criminals and systematically denied medical attention. In 1993 the regime offered Sebastian a deal: He would be released immediately if he only agreed to leave the island for good. Sebastian rejected the deal, choosing prison in Cuba over freedom in exile.


After an international campaign that included his designation as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience and a request by France Libertés, the organization founded by former French first lady Danielle Mitterrand, Sebastian Arcos was released in 1995. A few weeks after his release, Arcos was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in the rectum, for which he had previously been denied medical care in prison. After a Cuban doctor was fired from his post for diagnosing Arcos, he traveled to Miami for further care. In 1996, Sebastián Arcos Bergnes testified before the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland:
My name is Sebastián Arcos Bergnes, and I am the Vice-president of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, a non-governmental organization founded in Cuba in 1976 to observe the respect for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the island.
On the 15 of January 1992 I was arrested in my home by the Cuban political police; the second time in ten years. On October of that year I was sentenced to 4 years and eight months in prison for the sole crime of reporting to this Commission the violations of human rights committed by the government of my country. The labor of those volunteers of this Commission inside of Cuba are considered by the government as "enemy propaganda."
I will not enter into the details concerning the multiple irregularities of the judicial process always against me, nor about the conditions that I had to tolerate for more than three years. I will refer solely to one aspect of this my last experience in Cuban prisons.
When I was arrested in January of 1992, I enjoyed excellent general health for a man my age, 60 years then. I weighed around 170 pounds, and ran 5 to 6 kilometers every morning. Eight months later, when after a campaign of denunciations of my family I was transferred finally to a military hospital, I'd lost over 30 pounds and suffered from multiple ailments.
My stay in the hospital was not long. In December of 1992 I was transferred to the Prison of Ariza in the Province of Cienfuegos, over 300 km from my home and my relatives. All of the medical treatments indicated by specialists of the military hospital were immediately suspended. During the next 30 months that I spent in Ariza my state of health worsened considerably, and I was systematically denied access to the medications that my family sent me.
During those 30 months only occasionally did I see inexperienced doctors that gave me incomplete medical exams and additionally lacked the medication to prescribe me. I have in my possession a detailed chronology of my repeated denunciations concerning the abandonment of my health by the Cuban authorities.
In February of 1994, in an attempt to refute my denunciations, the Cuban government presented before this Commission a strip of video filmed without my knowledge, in which I appeared to be undergoing a medical exam. That was the second and last time that I was taken to the hospital, that time for a cardiological exam which had been ordered with urgency on three previous occasions.
In mid - 1994 I commenced to suffer pains in my left leg, which later spread to the rest of my extremities. After a rapid examination, a doctor in the prison determined that I suffered from polineutritis -a deficiency illness very common in the Cuban jails, and he prescribed treatment with vitamins. The pain continued with me for nearly a year later when I was liberated as a result of a gesture of the humanitarian organization France Liberte.
A few days after being liberated the pain worsened suddenly. Many weeks later I had to be urgently admitted to the hospital, were a doctor (friend) discovered that I had a malignant tumor in the rectum. Finally I had to leave Cuba to receive medical treatment in Miami, where my children live. The medical team which examined me in Mercy Hospital diagnosed a rectal tumor of 8 cm of diameter, with more than a year and a half of growth, with metastasis in the bones of the pelvis. At only 4 cm from the anal sphincter, the tumor could have been easily detectable with a simple feel of the area which is included in a basic medical exam for any man over 50 years old. Attached here are medical diagnosis which confirm what I've been saying.
These conclusions put the Cuban government in a difficult juncture. Or the Cuban government didn't know of the existence of the tumor, and in that case they recognize that they did not give me adequate medical assistance; or I'm lying and the Cuban government did know about the tumor and hid that knowledge for more than a year.Or the Cuban government recognizes itself guilty of criminal negligence in my case, or it recognizes itself guilty of an attempted premeditated homicide against my person.
Mr. President:
Before I finish, I would like to make clear that mine is not an isolated case, but only an example of the regular practice of Cuban authorities in their treatment of prisoners of conscience. Out of the group of 6 political prisoners liberated by the Cuban government after the requests of France Liberte, only two enjoyed good health. In addition to my own case, Reinaldo Figueredo has cancer in his vocal chords, Luis Enrique Gonzalez Ogra has pancreatic cancer, and Ismael Salvia Ricardo is nearly blind. Terrible nutrition, crowded and unsanitary cells, housing with common violent criminals, violent repression, and reluctant medical assistance - if any- are the norm and not the exception in Cuban prisons.
Because of all this, Mr. President, it is urgent that this Commission demand of the Cuban government that it permit without restriction the International Red Cross to all the Cuban prisons, and that Cuba comply with the international statutes about prisoners and the treatment of prisoners. This is the least we can do in the short run to avoid that cases like mine be repeated, in which medical assistance came-tragically-when it was already far too late.

Thank you very much,
Sebastián Arcos Bergnes
Sebastián Arcos Bergnes died in Miami surrounded by relatives on December 22, 1997, but in the two years he lived abroad, his life prolonged thanks to state of the art medical care at the time, he was able to give his testimony and expose the criminal nature of the Castro regime and document it on the record. It is known that Cuba and China have a close working relationship and share "worse practices" and it would not be a surprise that the lessons learned from the Arcos Bergnes episode would have led Chinese commissars to decide against his release, preferring the short term bad press to having the possibility of Liu Xiaobo traveling the world for a couple of years, or more, with all measures taken to prolong his life and providing testimony as the Cuban human rights defender did between 1995 and 1997, while battling a terminal cancer. Nevertheless both men were victims of politically motivated medical neglect, a despicable practice shared by these two communist regimes.


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