Saturday, September 21, 2019

Six decades of prisoners of conscience in communist Cuba: Where is the outrage?

“Never allow the government – or anyone else – to tell you what you can or cannot believe or what you can and cannot say or what your conscience tells you to have to do or not do.” - Armando Valladares, former prisoner of conscience and Ambassador to the UNHRC

Huber Matos fought alongside Fidel Castro and spent 22 years jailed for his nonviolent dissent
Cuban prisoners of conscience have been a reality in Cuba since 1959. Some of them had participated in the struggle against Batista, and made Fidel Castro's rise to power possible.
Huber Matos, a school teacher, declared himself in opposition to Fulgencio Batista on March 10, 1952 the day that Cuban democracy came under attack. Following the extrajudicial killing of some of his former students he joined the armed struggle and ended up being one of the leaders of the revolutionary insurrection that drove Batista from power on New Year’s Eve 1958.
Less than a year later he would be on trial for his life. What was his crime? Warning Fidel Castro in several private letters, where he tendered his resignation only to have it refused, that communists were infiltrating the revolutionary government. In these letters he plainly stated:
"I did not want to become an obstacle to the revolution and I believe that if I am forced to choose between falling into line or withdrawing from the world so as not to do harm, the most honorable and revolutionary action is to leave."
Fidel Castro made the letters public generating the crisis and denouncing the charge that communists were infiltrating the government. He ordered Camilo Cienfuegos, another popular revolutionary leader, to go an arrest Matos. The Castro brothers began to prepare a show trial and the execution by firing squad of Huber Matos for treason.
The revolutionary tribunal was prepared. Fidel Castro spoke to Matos promising that if he confessed to everything that he would not face any prison time and could go home. Matos refused, and as the show trial began and they tried to shut him up - he refused. He went on to speak for more that three hours and concluded his testimony stating: 
"I consider myself neither a traitor nor a deserter. My conscience is clear. If the court should find me guilty, I shall accept its decision - even though I may be shot. I would consider it one more service for the revolution."  
Revolutionary officers that had been convened at the trial to chant "to the execution wall" instead moved by his testimony rose up and applauded Matos. Instead of the firing squad the revolutionary tribunal sentenced him to 22 years in prison in December 1959.
Huber Matos would serve every day of those 22 years suffering beatings and other tortures. 

Mario Chanes fought against Batista, was jailed with Castro, and later jailed by Castro 30 years
Mario Chanes de Armas, a labor organizer, survived the Moncada barracks attack on July 26, 1953 together with Fidel Castro. The two served time in prison together, trained in Mexico and returned to Cuba on the Granma yacht to defeat Batista.
Chanes could have had any position in the new regime, but opted to return to his brewery job. After two years of watching Castro betray their movement, Chanes spoke out against the communist influence in the revolutionary government. Chanes was tried as a counterrevolutionary and in 1961 imprisoned for 30 years.
Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have been and continue to be jailed in Castro's prisons for their political dissent.
Over the past sixty years the international community has become accustomed to the systemic injustices perpetrated by the Castro dictatorship. During these past six decades there have been prisoners of conscience and political prisoners in Cuba. Between 1959 and 1988 no international organizations were allowed to visit prisons in Cuba. This included the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Independent human rights organizations in Cuba have not been legally recognized by the Castro regime. The Cuban Committee for Human Rights was formally established on January 28, 1976 but did not become fully active until 1983 because State Security arrested everyone shortly after it was founded.
Ricardo Bofill: human rights defender and prisoner of conscience
Seven years later, in October of 1983, in the Combinado del Este prison, several prisoners of conscience who had similar aspirations met. Paradoxically, what the regime did was to join together many of those who were already marching along similar paths, and the Cuban Committee for Human Rights eventually re-emerged where many political conspiracies usually end. In truth, there were only seven: Ricardo Bofill, Gustavo Arcos Bergnes (then incommunicado on the ground floor and with whom the others could only speak when they took them out to the prison yard), Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz (who was already in the Boniato prison, but kept in contact with the others through family members), the former director of Pabellón Cuba, Teodoro del Valle, the poet René Díaz Almeyda, the diplomat Edmigio López Castillo and Ariel Hidalgo.

In 1987 the documentary "Nobody Listened" captured the human rights reality in Cuba with interviews with former political prisoners, archival footage of firing squads and other instances of repression. Former prisoners described show trials, extajudicial executions, and cruel and unusual punishment that rose to the level of torture. This in an environment were the international community was not listening.
 However things were about to change on the international front.
The Cuban Committee for Human Rights was able to document human rights abuses and smuggle these reports out of the prisons and out of Cuba reaching the international community. It was their work combined with the diplomatic pressure of the Reagan Administration, and their Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, former prisoner of conscience, Dr. Armando Valladares that on March 8, 1988 the Cuban government was finally called to account for systematically denying access to Cuba's prisons. 

U.S. Ambassador to the UNHRC Armando Valladares
On March 11, 1988 Havana invited the United Nations Human Rights Commission to investigate human rights in Cuba. Over the course of the next year not only the UN Human Rights Commission, but also the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were able to enter Cuba and document the human rights violations in the island.
This was the first and last time these organizations were allowed into Cuba to visit Castro's prisons. The lack of outrage turned into a permanent acceptance of injustice in Cuba.
Thirty years have passed since the last time the International Committee of the Red Cross was able to visit Cuban prisons. Meanwhile the International Committee of the Red Cross has visited the U.S. Guantanamo detention facility over 100 times since 2001.
During the Cuban Black Spring in 2003 over a 100 activists were arrested and 75 of them were subjected to political show trials and condemned to prison terms ranging from 15 to 25 years in prison. A Czech film crew in Cuba filmed and interviewed activists before the crackdown and then interviewed their friends and family members after the show trials.

Out of this crackdown the wives, daughters, and sisters of these activists formed the Ladies in White and began organizing for their freedom. Regular marches, literary teas, and lobbying both the Cuban government and the international community. Some have been jailed, others beaten, and one of the founding leaders, Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, died under suspicious circumstances on October 14, 2011. There are still extrajudicial executions in Cuba by Castro's secret police. Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, and Harold Cepero died in what appears to have been state security engineered killings on July 22, 2012.
There are still prisoners of conscience in Cuba. Prisoners of conscience have died in Castro's prisons while protesting mistreatment at the hands of Cuban officials. This has gone on for decades. Some of the high profile cases stretch out over a half century: student leader Pedro Luis Boitel (1972), Orlando Zapata Tamayo (2010), and Wilman Villar Mendoza (2012) have been documented on this blog.
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. issued a prophetic warning in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" when he observed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The international community has paid a price for its acceptance of these continuing injustices. Venezuela is now suffering a human rights crisis, product of a Cuban occupation and the imposition of these systemic injustices on a new and larger population.
The newest prisoner of conscience is independent journalist Roberto de Jesús Quiñones.  Below is an Amnesty International call to action for the latest Cuban prisoner of action and following it a photograph and description from 1988 in Life magazine describing conditions in the prisons. Six decades and ongoing of prisoners of conscience in Cuba, many of them human rights defenders jailed for their work, is an outrage that must be denounced more vigorously by the international community.
Amnesty International, September 12, 2019

On 11 September 2019,authorities arrested independent Cuban journalist Mr Roberto de Jesús Quiñones Haces in Cuba, after he was convicted of resistance and disobedience in August 2019.He is a prisoner of conscience and should be immediately and unconditionally released.
Miguel Díaz Canel
President of the Republic of Cuba
Hidalgo, Esquina 6. Plaza de la Revolución
La Habana, CP 10400 Cuba
Twitter: @DiazCanelBDear
President Díaz-Canel,

I write to you to condemn the imprisonment of Mr Roberto de Jesús Quiñones Haces, a Cuban independent journalist at Cubanet, arrested on 11 September, after being convicted of resistance and disobedience and sentenced to one-year in prison in August2019.

Over decades, Amnesty International has documented how criminal code provisions such as “resistance” to public officials carrying out their duties and “disobedience” have been used to stifle the rights to freedom of expression in Cuba. This imprisonment is yet another example of a tired trend that has continued under your administration.

I therefore demand the immediate and unconditional release of Mr Roberto de Jesús Quiñones Haces. Pending his release, he should be allowed access to his family and not be subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.

Yours sincerely,

According to information available to Amnesty International, Roberto de Jesús Quiñones Haces, a lawyer and independent journalist at the news website Cubanet, was arrested on 11 September 2019 in Cuba after being convicted in August 2019by the Municipal Court in the city of Guantanamo for resistance and disobedience.

According to the journalist, in April national police had detained and beaten him. As a result, he had made a formal complaint against them. On August 23, an appeal court upheld his conviction, without granting him a further oral hearing.

Roberto de Jesús Quiñones Haces also alleges that he was arbitrarily detained on previous occasions, as early as 2015. On 20 August, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Office of the Special Rapporteur condemned the prison sentence against journalist Roberto Quiñones and expressed concern about the persistence of criminalization and harassment against communicators and human rights defenders in Cuba. The Office of the Special Rapporteur in a recent report on Cuba, found that state agents are the “main source of threats and attacks against the press” and called on this practice to be “dismantled and sanctioned.”

Amnesty International has found that the disproportionate and arbitrary use of the criminal law, and campaigns of state-sponsored discrimination against those who dare to speak out, coupled with discriminatory dismissals from state-employment, and the lack of an independent judiciary to challenge this, has created a profound climate of fear in Cuba.

In August, Amnesty International named five prisoners of conscience in Cuba, likely representing only a tiny fraction of those behind bars for peacefully expressing their views. Those five prisoners of conscience belong to political and pro-democracy groups not recognized by the state –all of whom have been imprisoned for crimes that are either inconsistent with international law or that have been used for decades in Cuba to silence critical voices.

The dominant official media remains heavily censored and limited in Cuba. While an increasing range of autonomous digital media projects have emerged in recent years, alternative online news sources operate within a legal limbo that exposes journalists and media workers to the risk of harassment and arbitrary detention. Moreover, their webpages are often blocked by the authorities in Cuba.

Cuba remains the only country in the Americas which Amnesty International is not permitted to enter for human rights monitoring work.

PLEASE TAKE ACTION AS SOON AS POSSIBLE UNTIL: 24 September 2019 NAME AND PREFERRED PRONOUN: Roberto de Jesús Quiñones Haces (He, his, him)

LIFE, April 1988
THE BIG PICTURE: The Next Move in Cuba
His bread and water left aside, an inmate in Boniato prison, 460 miles from Havana, prepares to push a hand-drawn chessboard across the hall to his opponent, likewise in solitary confinement. This is the first time photographs have been published of the notorious cell block. Political prisoners were held there until 1987, but after international pressure mounted, Fidel Castro's government moved them to a showcase high-security facility. Common criminals remained. At this month's meetings of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, the United States is supporting a resolution recommending that outside observers be allowed to investigate reports of unduly harsh conditions in Cuba's jails. And amid rumors that some 350 inmates would be freed, largely as a public relations countermove, those in Boniato's six-and-a-half-by-four-foot isolation cells passed their time as best they could.

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