Sunday, January 29, 2012

Season for Nonviolence: January 30 - April 4, 2012

"I have learnt through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power that can move the world." - Mohandas Gandhi, Young India Journal, September 1920

"Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation." - Martin Luther King Jr.

Half a century after the January 30, 1948 assassination of Mohandas Gandhi by a Hindu extremist and thirty years after the April 4, 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi's grandson, Arun Gandhi, began organizing an annual Season of Nonviolence that begins on January 30 and ends on April 4th. King was deeply influenced by Gandhi and in the video below he explains how Gandhian thought influenced him.

Martin Luther King Jr. speaks on how he became influenced by Gandhi's techniques

Both Gandhi and King have made a tremendous impact not only in their respective countries but around the world. In a real sense their legacies can be seen in the nonviolent movements confronting injustices around the world.

Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Oscar Elias Biscet

In Cuba, for example, nonviolent opposition activists have studied the writings of nonviolent thinkers. Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, who has spent more than a decade in Cuban prisons for his non-violent opposition to the dictatorship in that country in a lengthy blog post on June 17, 2011 explained that:
“[A]lthough Cubans are living in a society of fear, the opposition democrats have adhered to and consolidated in the principles of nonviolent civic struggle. The theories of Henry Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Junior and Gene Sharp, considered by the regime as subversive books, are the guide of this nonviolent resistance movement.”
Dr. Biscet is one of the many followers of Gandhi and King making a difference around the world. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently carrying out a nonviolent struggle following the Gandhian tradition, is changing both Burma, her homeland, and the world. In the video below she speaks out on the impact of nonviolence and Gandhi on the movement in Burma.

Suu Kyi's words bear taking a closer look at:
We are convinced that the non-violent approach is the best. We are convinced that in the long run it pays off, even if over time it is actually longer, because it is a non-violent approach. For example, if we consider a country like India, which was very much influenced by Gandhiji's non-violent philosophy, you can see how clear the military has kept away from politics. India has had many, many political upheavals and it has faced many problems, and it probably will have many problems to face in the future, but I think the seed of non-violence that was planted before independence has helped them a great deal in resolving their problems in as democratic a way as is possible under the circumstances. So we want to keep to the non-violent approach.
Another who changed the world and passed away on December 18, 2011 was Vaclav Havel. Havel was an admirer of Gandhi. On February 8, 1994 in New Delhi while accepting the Indira Gandhi prize Havel outlined Gandhi's influence on him:
“I am one of Mahatma Gandhi's admirers, and, if I may be so bold, I believe that a reflection of his life's work might even be seen in the attempt my friends and I made, in Charter 77, to create a nonviolent opposition to the totalitarian regime in our country. This aspect of our activity later had a positive influence on the course of our anti-totalitarian revolution in 1989.”
Underprivileged Indian children dressed to look like the late Mahatma Gandhi arrive on a bus in Kolkata, India, before attempting a world record for being the largest gathering of people dressed as Gandhi, Jan. 29. Bikas Das / AP

The 15th Season for Nonviolence begins tomorrow on January 30, 2012 and there are activities being organized around the world. There is still time for you to organize something in your own community to defend, promote and work towards living in a nonviolent way in your own corner of the world.

Cuban independent journalist Luis Rojas's home vandalized

Family's home is vandalized and police have no suspects. Unfortunately, this being Cuba and one of the victims living in the home an independent journalist, Luis Rojas, government agents ( including the police) are themselves suspects. Below is a repost of Luis's blog entry on what happened. Marc Masferrer of Uncommon Sense has also reposted it.

Terrorist vandalism in my house, 20th Street No. 1303 & 13 and 15. San German, Holguin, CUBA. @alambradas (twitter)/ @alambradas_en

“Anonymous” did it

by Luis Rojas

This happened last night in my house. “Anonymous” did it. The police, which is so effective when it comes to arresting free-thinkers and beating defenseless men and women when they go out to the street to scream FREEDOM, did not find the culprits.

I wasn’t in San German and when I arrived this morning I found this. I couldn’t put it on my Twitter account or send a picture via Twitpic because the service on my cellphone has not been re-activated. I prefer not to fall into the thievery of CUBACEL which, during these days, has robbed me of SMS and photos in my @alambradas account.

A friend of mine lent me his cellphone and, thanks to him, I was able to send an email to another friend with this photo and this note, so that it be published on my blog or wherever else possible.

That’s how internet without internet works from San German, Holguin.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Living in truth and rebuilding Cuba's brutalized society

Resisting humiliation and defending dignity in totalitarian Cuba

Other famous men, those of much talk and few deeds, soon evaporate. Action is the dignity of greatness. - José Julián Martí Pérez

This morning shared a conversation/panel at the launch of the Roots of Hope event "Avenida Cuba" at Miami-Dade College Wolfson campus with Cuban rapper Yrak Saenz, a skater named Rene and discussed music, culture and civic movements. Before participating on the panel also listened to a Cuban artist named David D Omni visiting from the island who spoke of Satyagraha and living in truth. Had never met any of them before. Prior to the start of the conversation I distributed the World Youth Movement for Democracy statement on the death of Cuban prisoner of conscience Wilman Villar Mendoza. Focusing on Cuba and Cuban civil society through a social-cultural focus is an enriching experience that led to the following reflection and much of it ended up in the presentation made by yours truly today but what follows, hopefully, is a bit more developed.

Wilman Villar Mendoza, a member of the opposition group Union Patriotica de Cuba, was detained after participating in a nonviolent protest in Contramaestre,Cuba on November 2, 2011. He was sentenced to four years in prison following a trial on November 24, 2011 that lasted less than an hour in which there was no due process he was immediately taken to Aguadores prison. Wilman began his hunger strike to protest his unjust trial and imprisonment that same day. Cuban authorities transferred him to a punishment cell without clothes or water in an effort to break his spirit and force him to end the hunger strike.

It was only when Wilman's health failed and it looked like he would die that prison officials transferred him to a hospital on January 15, 2012 (63 days after he had initiated the hunger strike). Wilman Villar Mendoza died four days later at 6:30pm on January 19, 2012 at the age of 31. He left behind a wife and two daughters ages 5 and 6.

Why would a young man with a family give up his life in a protest over an unjust four year prison sentence? Imagine for a moment that you have participated in a nonviolent protest and a day or two later someone comes to your door and arrests you. In a sham trial that takes less than an hour you are sentenced to four years in prison.

Think about it: four years in prison for exercising a fundamental human right. 1,460 days in prison separated from your family and housed with violent common criminals for carrying the Cuban flag in a nonviolent protest demanding a better life for Cubans with more freedom. 35,040 hours in a dark, filthy and dank prison cell to reflect on this outrage. Cuban prisoners of conscience arrested in 2003 spent more than double that time in prison. One of them Orlando Zapata Tamayo also died on a hunger strike on February 23, 2010 protesting his unjust imprisonment and mistreatment by prison authorities.

It is not just a Cuban phenomenon.

A fruit vendor, the Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, doused himself with paint thinner and lit a match on December 17, 2010, setting himself on fire in front of the local governor’s office after the authorities confiscated his fruit, beat him and refused to return his property. His desperate act set off street clashes that ultimately toppled the country’s autocratic ruler, but also brought down autocrats in Egypt and Libya while igniting mass protests that threaten the rule of autocrats in Bahrain and Syria.

It is not the first time that a young man has self-immolated himself to defend his dignity as a human being. 20 year old Czech student, Jan Palach set himself on fire, in Wenceslas Square, in Prague on January 16, 1969. He died three days later on January 19, 1969, but before he died he spoke to the doctors and nurses who cared for him about why he had set himself on fire. Jaroslava Moserova was a doctor on duty when Jan was rushed into the hospital and still remembers what he told her:
"It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation, but the demoralization which was setting in, that people were not only giving up, but giving in. And he wanted to stop that demoralization. I think the people in the street, the multitude of people in the street, silent, with sad eyes, serious faces, which when you looked at those people you understood that everyone understands, all the decent people who were on the verge of making compromises."
What drove these men to acts of self-immolation? They were acts of defiance against not only their personal humiliation but in defense of the collective dignity of a people. Because despots know that such an act of desperation and outrage over a profound injustice can resonate with a populace and end their rule that regime's fear them, even posthumously, and attempt to slander their memory.

Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright, dissident, and future president wrote about the impact of the daily humiliations that exist in a totalitarian regime in a 1975 open letter to Dr. Husak, the General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party at the time:
If every day someone takes orders in silence from an incompetent superior, if every day he solemnly performs ritual acts which he privately finds ridiculous, if he unhesitatingly gives answers to questionnaires which are contrary to his real opinions and is prepared to deny himself in public, if he sees no difficulty in feigning sympathy or even affection where, in fact, he feels only indifference or aversion, it still does not mean that he has entirely lost the use of one of the basic human senses, namely, the sense of dignity.

On the contrary: even if they never speak of it, people have a very acute appreciation of the price they have paid for outward peace and quiet: the permanent humiliation of their human dignity. The less direct resistance they put up to it comforting themselves by driving it from their mind and deceiving themselves with the thought that it is of no account, or else simply gritting their teeth-the deeper the experience etches itself into their emotional memory. The man who can resist humiliation can quickly forget it; but the man who can long tolerate it must long remember it. In actual fact, then, nothing remains forgotten. All the fear one has endured, the dissimulation one has been forced into, all the painful and degrading buffoonery, and, worst of all, perhaps, the feeling of having displayed one's cowardice-all this settles and accumulates somewhere in the bottom of our social consciousness, quietly fermenting.

Clearly, this is no healthy situation. Left untreated, the abscesses suppurate; the pus cannot escape from the body, and the malady spreads throughout the organism. The natural human emotion is denied the process of objectivization and instead, caged up over long periods in the emotional memory, is gradually deformed into a sick cramp, into a toxic substance not unlike the carbon monoxide produced by incomplete combustion.

No wonder, then, that when the crust cracks and the lava of life rolls out, there appear not only well-considered attempts to rectify old wrongs, not only searchings for truth and for reforms matching life's needs, but also symptoms of bilious hatred, vengeful wrath, and a feverish desire for immediate compensation for all the degradation endured.
Wilman Villar Mendoza, Mohamed Bouazizi, and Jan Palach were three men who resisted humiliation and defended not only their own dignity but that of their respective countries. The uprisings in reaction to the death of Mohamed Bouazizi were almost immediate while in the case of Jan Palach took place twenty years following his death:
“On the 20th anniversary of Palach's death, protests in memory of Palach escalated into what would be called "Palach Week". The series of anticommunist demonstrations in Prague between 15 and 21 January 1989 were suppressed by the police. Palach Week is considered one of the catalyst demonstrations which preceded the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia.”
In the case of totalitarian regimes like Czechoslovakia and Cuba the damage to society is both widespread and profound. Totalitarian regimes by definition attempt not only to monopolize political life but all aspects of life. For example the arts and music are subjected to political control and widespread censorship. Although some of it may survive being circulated in the underground or on the black market the average citizen will be denied essential musical and artistic works based on political censorship.

In the case of Cuba, Eric Silva Brenneman reported in the book Shoot the singer!: music censorship today that "[b]etween the 1960s and 1970s, the island performed a cultural genocide the consequences of which are still difficult to calculate today," and how there is increasing concern within the international music community that post-revolution generations are growing up without knowing or hearing these censored musicians and that this could lead to a loss of Cuban identity in future generations.

In the case of Czechoslovakia that obtained in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 the aftermath exposed the societal harm from decades of totalitarian rule and were summarized by President Havel in his 1990 New Years Address:
We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimension, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships. Only a few of us were able to cry out loudly that the powers that be should not be all-powerful and that the special farms, which produced ecologically pure and top-quality food just for them, should send their produce to schools, children's homes and hospitals if our agriculture was unable to offer them to all.

The previous regime - armed with its arrogant and intolerant ideology - reduced man to a force of production, and nature to a tool of production. In this it attacked both their very substance and their mutual relationship. It reduced gifted and autonomous people, skillfully working in their own country, to the nuts and bolts of some monstrously huge, noisy and stinking machine, whose real meaning was not clear to anyone. It could not do more than slowly but inexorably wear out itself and all its nuts and bolts.

When I talk about the contaminated moral atmosphere, I am not talking just about the gentlemen who eat organic vegetables and do not look out of the plane windows. I am talking about all of us. We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all - though naturally to differing extents - responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.

It is as if they had fallen into a deep sleep and only for the brave actions of a few who had awakened and shouted out for the others to wake up that the totalitarian nightmare finally ended in Czechoslovakia. Some of the screams, such as Jan Palach's immolation, were louder than the others.

Panel/Conversation on Friday, January 27, 2012 at Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus

One of the speakers on Friday told me that the majority of the Cuban people are still asleep but that there was an active minority that was wide awake. Cuba's civic movements are at the heart of both the rebirth of pluralism and the regeneration of brutalized and damaged Cuban society. Some of the members of this movement like Pedro Luis Botiel, Orlando Zapata Tamayo and Wilman Villar Mendoza have shouted more loudly than others for the Cuban people to awaken. Their examples of resistance to the constant humiliations of the regime and their defense of dignity are the basis for a Cuban democratic awakening that will wash away a half century of totalitarian rule.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tahrir Square: One Year Later

Tahrir Square, January 25, 2012

As an International Witness to the first and third round of the Egyptian Parliamentary elections I had an opportunity to visit Tahrir Square in later November 2o11 and again in early January 2012.

Walking into Tahrir Square on November 25, 2011

Walking amongst the protesters and meeting with them in the tents at the heart of the square to listen to their desires for the future of Egypt. Seeing their defiance in the face of the heavy military and police presence and the real danger they faced in clashes that ended with unarmed demonstrators shot to death one could admire their courage.

Despite all of this, and at the same time because of the continuing systematic denial of human rights, today January 25, 2012 tens of thousands of Egyptians took to Tahrir Square to protest continued military rule chanting slogans among them: "Egypt is a state not a barracks"; "Down with military rule!"; "Our demands are the same freedom and justice!;" and "Civilian, civilian we don't want it militaristic!"

Massive march to Tahrir, one of the largest in Egypt's history on January 25, 2012

Since the departure of Mubarak one year ago the human rights situation under the military has deteriorated. Daniel Williams from Human Rights Watch in an oped published today offers an overview of human rights in Egypt over the past year:
...Mubarak's repressive legacy has been preserved and even strengthened. SCAF rules in his place and has indicated it should remain a power behind the scenes, as it has for the 60 years since the overthrow of the country's monarchy.

Egyptians still live under the emergency law –in place since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 – that permits bans on public assembly, indefinite detention without charge, prosecution in special courts that allow no appeal process and that are notorious for reliance on confessions obtained under torture. On Tuesday, SCAF's chieftain, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, partially lifted the 30-year state of emergency but said Egypt would continue to apply the emergency law to cases of "thuggery." Tantawi's gesture is far from sufficient. In the last year, military tribunals have convicted hundreds of peaceful protesters on charges of thuggery.

During almost a year in power, SCAF has liberally referred civilians to military courts, another practice of the Mubarak years, though under him it was reserved for so-called exceptional cases. Sometimes the magistrates have announced a verdict before a trial began.

The military has arbitrarily arrested and convicted peaceful protesters, some of whom remain imprisoned. Measures that date from Britain's early 20th century domination of Egypt ban assemblies of more than five people "that threaten the public peace."

Although by international standards, lethal force should be used only when strictly necessary to protect life, under current Egyptian law, police – who are effectively under SCAF control –possess wide scope for shooting at demonstrators. The minister of interior has broad discretion to decide on use of weapons and what warnings need be given demonstrators before firing on them. On Jan. 6, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent human rights organization, denounced a statement by the interior minister that police will get bonuses for shooting "thugs," government shorthand for demonstrators.

Police regulations are bad enough, but the actions of security forces – both police and military – have been abominable. In October, soldiers ran over demonstrators with armored cars and shot them, killing 27 marchers at a Christian rally held to protest the burning of a church. In November, at least 40 demonstrators were killed by anti-riot forces during unrest in and around Tahrir Square, the epicenter of protest. Police routinely beat demonstrators, women included. Human Rights Watch has documented torture and abuse of detainees by soldiers. Military personnel carried out abusive "virginity tests" on women in detention. Servile state media demonize opposition groups and non-governmental organizations as subversive tools of dark foreign forces.

Laws endure that make citizens vulnerable to prosecution for "insulting" speech or words "harmful" to morals or tantamount to changing the existing political order. In March, SCAF added a new wrinkle to restrictions on speech and assembly by criminalizing strikes and demonstrations "that impede public works." In April, a military court sentenced young blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad to three years in prison for "insulting the military establishment" when he criticized army rule on his blog and Facebook page. SCAF said last weekend that Nabil would be pardoned and released along with more than 1,900 other prisoners convicted in military trials. It was a gesture in advance of the Jan. 25 holiday; Nabil shouldn't have been arrested and convicted in the first place.
Harsh repression and raids on human rights organizations in Egypt continue but despite this Egyptians are unafraid. All eyes on Egypt and in solidarity with Egyptian democrats seeking to restore civilian rule after 60 years of military rule.

Monday, January 23, 2012

International Human Rights Commission Condemns Death of Wilmar Villar in Cuba

IACHR Condemns Death of Wilmar Villar in Cuba

January 23, 2012

Washington, D.C. — The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) regrets and condemns the death of Cuban dissident Wilmar Villar, who died after a hunger strike. The IACHR expresses its condolences and solidarity with his next of kin.

According to information received, Wilmar Villar was a member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (Unión Patriótica de Cuba), an opposition group in Cuba. On November 24, 2010, he was condemned to prison by a Cuban tribunal that found him guilty of “libel, resistance and assault.” It was informed that Wilmar Villar started a hunger strike in protest against the process and the sentence, which he called “unfair.”

On February 26, 2010, the IACHR regretted and condemned the death of Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died of starvation after 85 days on a hunger strike. He had been detained in March 2003 and sentenced to prison in a trial held behind closed doors, which lasted no longer than a day.

The Commission reiterates that restrictions to political rights and to freedom of expression and the dissemination of thought; the lack of elections; and the lack of independence of the judiciary create a permanent situation in Cuba in which the fundamental rights of its citizens are violated. The Commission once again urges the State to carry out the reforms that are necessary in accordance with its international human rights obligations.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this matter. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

Related Links
Press Release 22/10: IACHR Condemns Death of Orlando Zapata in Cuba

No. 007/1

Human Rights Watch World Report 2012: Cuba

Events of 2011

Cuba remains the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent. In 2011 Raúl Castro’s government continued to enforce political conformity using short-term detentions, beatings, public acts of repudiation, forced exile, and travel restrictions.

In 2011 the Cuban government freed the remaining 12 political prisoners from the “group of 75” dissidents—human rights defenders, journalists, and labor leaders who were sentenced in 2003 in summary trials for exercising their basic rights—having forced most into exile in exchange for their freedom. Also in 2011 the government sentenced at least seven more dissidents to prison for exercising their fundamental rights, and human rights groups on the island said dozens more remain in prison.

The government increasingly relied on arbitrary arrests and short-term detentions to restrict the basic rights of its critics, including the right to assemble and move about freely. Cuba’s government also pressured dissidents to choose between exile and continued repression or even imprisonment, leading scores to leave the country with their families during 2011.

Political Prisoners

Cubans who criticize the government are subject to criminal charges. They are exempt from due process guarantees, such as the right to a defense or fair and public hearings by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal. In practice, courts are “subordinated” to the executive and legislative branches, denying meaningful judicial protection.

Dozens of political prisoners remain in Cuban prisons, according to respected human rights groups on the island. In June 2011 the Cuban Council of Human Rights Rapporteurs issued a list of 43 prisoners whom it said were still incarcerated for political reasons. In May 2011, four dissidents from Havana—Luis Enrique Labrador, David Piloto, Walfrido Rodríguez, and Yordani Martínez—were prosecuted on charges of contempt and public disorder for demonstrating in Havana's Revolutionary Square and throwing leaflets with slogans such as “Down with the Castros.” They were sentenced to three to five years in prison. The council estimates that there are many more political prisoners whose cases they cannot document because the government does not let independent national or international human rights groups access its prisons.

Arbitrary Detentions and Short-Term Imprisonment

In addition to criminal prosecution, Raul Castro's government has increasingly relied on arbitrary detention to harass and intimidate individuals who exercise their fundamental rights. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation documented 2,074 arbitrary detentions by security forces in 2010, and 2,224 between January and August 2011. The detentions are often used preemptively to prevent individuals from participating in meetings or events viewed as critical of the government.

Security officers hardly ever present arrest orders to justify detentions, and threaten detainees with criminal prosecution if they continue to participate in “counterrevolutionary” activities. Victims of such arbitrary arrests said they were held incommunicado for several hours to several days, often at police stations. Some received an official warning (acta de advertencia), which prosecutors may later use in criminal trials to show a pattern of delinquent behavior. Dissidents said these warnings aimed to dissuade them from participating in future activities considered critical of the government.

For example, on July 24, 2011, state security agents arbitrarily detained 28 human rights activists for 4 to 30 hours in Palma Soriano, Santiago de Cuba province, when they tried to participate in a religious service to pray for the release of political prisoners.

Forced Exile

The death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo in February 2010 following his 85-day hunger strike, and the subsequent hunger strike by dissident Guillermo Fariñas, pressured the Cuban government to release the remaining political prisoners from the “group of 75,” who were detained during a 2003 crackdown on dissent. Yet while the final 12 prisoners from the group were released in March 2011, most were forced to choose between ongoing prison and forced exile.

Since that time dozens of other prominent dissidents, journalists, and human rights defenders have been forced to choose between exile and ongoing harassment or even imprisonment. For example, Néstor Rodríguez Lobaina, an outspoken human rights activist, former political prisoner, and president of a dissident youth group in Guantánamo, was arrested in December 2010. Held for months while awaiting trial, he said authorities told him that unless he agreed to go into exile, he would be sentenced to five years of prison. He accepted forced exile to Spain in April 2011.

Freedom of Expression

The government maintains a media monopoly on the island, ensuring there is virtually no freedom of expression. The government controls all media outlets in Cuba, and access to outside information is highly restricted. Limited internet access means only a tiny fraction of Cubans can read independently published articles and blogs.

Although a few independent journalists and bloggers manage to write articles for foreign websites or independent blogs, they must publish work through back channels, such as writing from home computers, saving information on memory sticks, and uploading articles and posts through illegal internet connections; others dictate articles to contacts abroad.

Independent journalists and bloggers are subjected to short-term arrests and harassment by police and state security agents, as well as threats of imprisonment if they continue to work. For example, independent journalists Magaly Norvis Otero Suárez and Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez were detained and beaten in Havana on February 23, 2011, as they walked to an event with two members of the Women in White—a respected human rights group comprised of wives, mothers, and daughters of political prisoners—to honor the one year anniversary of Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s death. They later said they were transported to a police station, where they were assaulted and held incommunicado for roughly 14 hours.

Bloggers and independent journalists have also been the victims of public smear campaigns, such as a March 2011 episode of a government-produced news program—broadcast widely on public television—which referred to independent bloggers as “cyber-mercenaries” and “puppets of the empire.”

The Cuban government uses the granting of press credentials and visas, which foreign journalists need to report from the island, to control coverage of Cuba and punish media outlets considered overly critical of the regime. In September, for example, the government refused to renew the press credentials of a journalist from Spain’s El Pais newspaper, arguing he presented a biased and negative image of Cuba.

Human Rights Defenders

Refusing to recognize human rights monitoring as a legitimate activity, Cuba’s government denies legal status to local human rights groups and uses harassment, beatings, and imprisonment to punish human rights defenders who try to document abuses. For example, Enyor Díaz Allen, Juan Luis Bravo Rodríguez, and Óscar Savón Pantoja—members of a human rights group in Guantanamó—were trying to enter a hospital on March 10 to visit a dissident on a hunger strike when security forces detained and transferred them without explanation to a police station and held them for three days in solitary confinement, Díaz Allen said.

Travel Restrictions and Family Separation

The Cuban government forbids the country's citizens from leaving or returning to Cuba without first obtaining official permission, which is often denied. For example, well-known blogger Yoani Sanchez, who has criticized the government, has been denied the right to leave the island to accept awards and participate in conferences at least 16 times in the past four years. The government uses widespread fear of forced family separation to punish defectors and silence critics, and frequently bars citizens engaged in authorized travel from taking their children with them overseas, essentially holding the latter hostage to guarantee their parents' return.

The government restricts the movement of citizens within Cuba by enforcing a 1997 law known as Decree 217. Designed to limit migration to Havana, the decree requires that Cubans obtain government permission before moving to the capital. It is often used to prevent dissidents from traveling to Havana to attend meetings, and to harass dissidents from other parts of Cuba who live in the capital.

Prison Conditions

Prisons are overcrowded, unhygienic, and unhealthy, leading to extensive malnutrition and illness. Prisoners who criticize the government, refuse to undergo ideological "reeducation," or engage in hunger strikes and other protests are often subjected to extended solitary confinement, beatings, and visit restrictions, and denied medical care. Prisoners have no effective complaint mechanism to seek redress, giving prison authorities total impunity.

Key International Actors

The United States's economic embargo on Cuba, in place for more than half a century, continues to impose indiscriminate hardship on Cubans, and has failed to improve human rights in the country. At the United Nations General Assembly in October, 186 of the 192 member countries voted for a resolution condemning the US embargo; only the US and Israel voted against it.

In January 2011 US President Barack Obama used his executive powers to ease “people-to-people” travel restrictions, allowing religious, educational, and cultural groups from the US to travel to Cuba, and permitting Americans to send remittances to assist Cuban citizens. In 2009 Obama eliminated limits on travel and remittances by Cuban Americans to Cuba, which had been instituted during George W. Bush’s administration.

In March US citizen Alan Gross—a subcontractor for the US Agency for International Development—was sentenced to 15 years in jail for distributing telecommunications equipment for religious groups in Cuba. Gross was detained in December 2009 and accused by state prosecutors of engaging in a “subversive project aiming at bringing down the revolution.” Cuba’s highest court upheld his sentence in August. He remains in prison.

The European Union continues to retain its "Common Position" on Cuba, adopted in 1996, which conditions full economic cooperation with Cuba on its transition to a pluralist democracy and respect for human rights.

At this writing Cuba’s government had yet to ratify the core international human rights treaties—the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights—which it signed in February 2008. Cuba is currently serving a three-year term on the UN Human Rights Council, having been re-elected in May 2009.

Also available in: Español

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Human Rights Watch: Dissident’s Death Highlights Repressive Tactics in Cuba

Cuba: Dissident’s Death Highlights Repressive Tactics
Stop Threats against Villar Mendoza Family
January 20, 2012

(Washington, DC) – The death of the 31-year-old dissident Wilman Villar Mendoza on January 19, 2012 following a 50-day hunger strike highlights the ongoing repression in Cuba, Human Rights Watch said today. The Cuban government should immediately put an end to the threats against his wife, Maritza Pelegrino Cabrales, and the group Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), which supports her, and drop any measures that would prevent her and dissidents from attending Villar Mendoza’s funeral.

Villar Mendoza was detained on November 2, 2011, after participating in a peaceful demonstration in Contramaestre, Cuba calling for greater political freedom and respect for human rights, his wife told Human Rights Watch. He was a member of the Union Patriotica de Cuba, a dissident group the Cuban government considers illegitimate because its members express critical views.

“Villar Mendoza’s case shows how the Cuban government punishes dissent,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Arbitrary arrests, sham trials, inhumane imprisonment, and harassment of dissidents’ families – these are the tactics used to silence critics.”

Villar Mendoza was charged with “contempt” (desacato) and sentenced to four years in prison in a hearing that lasted less than an hour, his wife told Human Rights Watch. While she was allowed to attend the trial, dissidents who tried to enter the courtroom were denied access. Villar Mendoza was not given the opportunity to speak in his defense, nor was he represented by a defense lawyer, she said.

His wife said he initiated his hunger strike to protest his unjust trial and imprisonment.

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a human rights monitoring group that the government does not recognize, classified Villar Mendoza as a political prisoner in December.

Prison guards placed Villar Mendoza in solitary confinement after he initiated the hunger strike on November 25, his wife said. He told his wife he was stripped naked and placed in solitary confinement in a small, cold cell. The last time she was allowed to visit her husband was on December 29, she said.

His wife also told Human Rights Watch that government officials had repeatedly harassed her for associating with the Damas de Blanco, a human rights group consisting of wives, mothers, and daughters of political prisoners. She said state security officers explicitly threatened to take away her and Villar Mendoza’s daughters, ages 7 and 5, if she continued to work with the Damas.

According to his wife, Villar Mendoza was transferred to a hospital in Santiago de Cuba days before he died. His wife said authorities had not notified her of his death, and that she had been informed by contacts outside of Cuba, who read the story in the international press. She said she has not yet been allowed to see his body, nor has she been informed about funeral arrangements.

On February 23, 2010, another Cuban political prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died after an 85-day hunger strike, which he initiated to protest the inhumane conditions in which he was being held and to demand medical treatment.

Cuban dictatorship slanders the dead, and the media repeats it

"To consider him a common criminal, smearing the memory of a martyr, is even more criminal then letting him die on hunger strike." - Dagoberto Valdés Hernández, tweeted on his account @convivenciacuba on Saturday, January 21, 2012

They have done it before.

Wilmar Villar Mendoza

On the Thursday, January 19, 2012 at approximately 6:30pm Cuban prisoner of conscience and opposition activist Wilmar Villar Mendoza died after his kidneys and other organs failed. He died the result of a prolonged hunger strike provoked by outrage over his unjust imprisonment and four year prison sentence issued in a closed-door sham trial on November 24, 2011 by agents of the Castro regime. Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience and Human Rights Watch documented that Wilmar was a Cuban opposition activist.

Now the Cuban communist regime is engaging in a campaign to rewrite the life of Wilmar Villar Mendoza from opposition activist arrested for participating in a public protest to an individual who was arrested for physically assaulting his wife and resisting arrest. Sadly, this is not a surprise but standard operating procedure in a dictatorship that survives through systematic lying.

Totalitarian regimes have patterns of conduct. This makes their behavior predictable. Beating up, arresting and imprisoning an innocent man for engaging in the nonviolent exercise of his fundamental human rights is a common practice in the Cuban regime. Political prisoners are subjected to cruel and unusual punishment that amounts to torture. Finally, when a prisoner or dissident dies and the Cuban dictatorship is responsible then the regime engages in a campaign using both government propaganda outlets and agents of influence around the world to deny that the victim was a sincere dissident or adversary and that the Cuban regime is not responsible for his death. If necessary the dictatorship will manufacture "evidence" to makes its "case."

Over the past two years three other high profile deaths in Cuba have been subjected to this posthumous ill treatment of slander and libel:

Orlando Zapata Tamayo

Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia

Laura Pollán

It is a sad state of affairs that much of the international media in Cuba have not caught on to these practices and regurgitate the Castro regime's position without underlining the skepticism it merits. Instead some hedge their language rather than get at the facts of the matter.

In addition to continue the effort to hold the dictatorship in Cuba responsible for its crimes that activists will also have to coordinate better in serving as media watchdogs to ensure that totalitarian propaganda not be passed of as news. Thanks to Twitter and Facebook it is far easier to expose both the crimes of the regime and the failures of the international news media to a large audience in real time. There is much work to do and lives depend on it.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Amnesty International: Cuban authorities ‘responsible' for activist's death on hunger strike

"The responsibility for Wilman Villar Mendoza’s death in custody lies squarely with the Cuban authorities, who summarily judged and jailed him for exercising his right to freedom of expression."

- Javier Zúñiga, Special Adviser at Amnesty International
, Fri, 20/01/2012

Another Cuban prisoner of conscience, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died while on hunger strike in custody in February 2010. © Getty Images

20 January 2012

Cuban authorities ‘responsible' for activist's death on hunger strike

The death in custody of a Cuban prisoner of conscience after a hunger strike is a shocking reminder of the Raúl Castro government's intolerance for dissent, Amnesty International said today.

Wilman Villar Mendoza, 31, died this morning in Juan Bruno Zayas Hospital in the city of Santiago where he was transferred from prison on 13 January due to health problems allegedly arising from a hunger strike protesting at his unfair trial and imprisonment.

He was serving a four-year prison term on charges related to his participation in a public demonstration against the government.

“The responsibility for Wilman Villar Mendoza’s death in custody lies squarely with the Cuban authorities, who summarily judged and jailed him for exercising his right to freedom of expression,” said Javier Zúñiga, Special Adviser at Amnesty International.

“His tragic death highlights the depths of despair faced by the other prisoners of conscience still languishing in Cuban jails, who must be released immediately and unconditionally.”

“The Cuban authorities must stop the harassment, persecution, and imprisonment of peaceful demonstrators as well as political and human rights activists.”

On 14 November 2011, police arrested Mendoza and eight other members of the Cuban Patriotic Union dissident group in the eastern town of Contramaestre for taking part in a protest against the Cuban government.

While he was in detention, police intimidated Mendoza, telling him he would be disappeared or face imprisonment on criminal charges stemming from an earlier arrest if he did not stop his protests and leave the dissident group.

He was released after three days in police custody but was then summoned to Contramaestre Municipal Tribunal on 24 November. Judges tried him in private and refused to accept testimony from his wife or other defence witnesses.

The judges sentenced the activist to four years' imprisonment and immediately transferred him to Aguaderas prison, in the provincial capital Santiago. The same day, he began a hunger strike in protest at the ruling.

As Mendoza’s health deteriorated over recent days, members of the Cuban Patriotic Union and the Ladies in White opposition group organised a vigil outside the hospital. On 18 January, state security officials broke up the gathering and detained more than a dozen people.

Mendoza is not the first prisoner of conscience to die in Cuban custody.

Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a prisoner of conscience jailed after the “Black Spring” crackdown on opposition groups in March 2003, died in prison on 23 February 2010 after several weeks on hunger strike.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Castro regime's injustice claims another victim: Wilman Villar Mendoza

"Wilmar has died because he was born in a country without legal, electoral or civic paths to express his nonconformity." - Yoani Sanchez

Wilman Villar Mendoza

Tonight two little girls lost their father; a young wife her husband; and a mother her son. Wilman Villar Mendoza died tonight after his kidneys and other organs failed. He died the result of a prolonged hunger strike provoked by outrage over a profound injustice committed against him by the Castro regime.

The protest that led to Wilman Villar Mendoza's unjust imprisonment (Video from UNPACU)

Wilman Villar Mendoza was arrested on November14, 2011 during a violent crackdown by the political police on nonviolent Cuban democrats. Wilman and the others had engaged in a public protest in the town of Contramaestre in Santiago, Cuba on November 2, 2011. Ten days later in a closed-door, one day sham trial on November 24 Wilman was sentenced to four years in prison for disobedience, resisting arrest and contempt and was sent to Aguadores prison.

Outraged at the injustice committed against him Wilman launched a hunger strike on November 25, 2011 and refused to wear the uniform of a common prisoner. There was little press coverage or official protests regarding his plight until his death appeared imminent.

Ladies in White and other opposition activists marched and demonstrated on his behalf suffering brutal beatings and detentions but the international press remained silent. Now that he has died, as was done in the case of Orlando Zapata Tamayo in 2010, the international media is reporting it. Too little and too late for Wilman Villar Mendoza. Bloggers and activists on twitter had alerted the world early on about his plight. Pedazos de la Isla, Uncommon Sense, Babalu, and Capitol Hill Cubans deserve special mention for getting the word out on their respective blogs.

When confronting a brutal totalitarian dictatorship there is a very simple equation:
silence = violence = death.
International official protests and heightened press scrutiny on behalf of brutalized dissidents means less bloodshed. Silence means that Maritza Pelegrino Cabrera, Wilman's wife, is now a widow and his two young daughters ages 5 and 6 will not get to grow up having a father.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Obama State Department designated Castro regime a terror sponsor for sound reasons

"There's no good reason for Cuba to be listed by the US as a state sponsor of terrorism." - Jeffrey Goldberg , on Twitter, January 17, 2012

"Iran and Cuba, in cooperation with each other, can bring America to its knees." ... "The U.S. regime is very weak, and we are witnessing this weakness from close up."
- Fidel Castro, University of Tehran, May 10, 2001 quoted in the Agence France Presse

"Our positions, versions, interpretations are alike, very close. We have been good friends, we are and will be, and we will be together forever. Long live Cuba! - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Havana, Cuba, January 12, 2012

Raul Castro and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

State Department designated Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism in 2011

The Obama State Department has designated the Castro regime a state sponsor of terrorism. The actions of the Cuban government under the Castro brothers both in the past and present provides a pile of evidence that the designation is accurate. Nevertheless Cuba "experts" such as Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic claim otherwise writing in Bloomberg on Monday: Don't lump Cuba with Iran on terror list.

Less than a week after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Cuba and just a week and a day after a Venezuelan counsel was expelled from the United States for sitting in on meetings with Cuban and Iranian officials to plot cyber attacks on the America. The evidence says otherwise.

Cuba and Iran think alike

When the leader of Iran states that Cuba and Iran think alike, he speaks the truth. Both regimes have used terrorism both domestically and internationally to advance political objectives. For example, Fidel Castro ordered a premeditated attack on July 13, 1994 that led to the deaths of 37 men, women, and children. Five days later on July 18, 1994 a bomb exploded and destroyed 7-story Jewish-Argentine Mutual Association (AMIA) community centre in Buenos Aires killing 85 men, women and children. This terrorist attack was linked to Iran but the individuals responsible have yet to be prosecuted.

Fidel Castro and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

The Past: Prior to being on the list of terror sponsors

The Castro brothers hosted and organized beginning in 1966 Tricontinental Conferences where "Cuba and Latin American Marxist Leninist terrorist groups began their collaboration with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and other radical Arab groups in the training and arming of terrorists."

One of the outcomes of the Conference was that the Cuban government published the "Mini Manual for Revolutionaries" in the official Latin American Solidarity Organization (LASO) publication Tricontinental, written by Brazilian urban terrorist Carlos Marighella, which gives precise instructions in terror tactics, kidnappings, etc. and translated into numerous languages which were distributed worldwide by the Cuban dictatorship. There is a chapter on terrorism. An online copy of the book is displayed on the website of fugitive Assata Shakur who fled to Cuba in 1984 for the murder of a police officer and unlike the average Cuban is able to maintain a web site from Cuba.

Fidel Castro and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Why was the Castro regime placed on the list of state sponsors of terrorism

On March 1, 1982 the Cuban dictatorship was placed on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. less than three months after the US State Department confirmed that the Castro regime was using a narcotics ring to funnel both arms and cash to the Colombian M19 terrorist group then battling to overthrow Colombia’s democratic government.

The Present: What does Wikileaks say about Cuban links to terrorism today?

Wikileaks leaked a February 27, 2009 cable published in its entirety in the Spanish socialist publication, El País which states that the US Interests Section in Havana has evidence that Cuba continues to be a safe haven for terrorists.

Why are the "experts" so consistently wrong?

Jeffrey Goldberg and Julia Sweig with Fidel Castro*

Jeffrey Goldberg in his Monday essay cites Julia Sweig as a source to discount that the Castro dictatorship is a sponsor of terrorism and makes a reference to Norway but fails to mention that self-confessed Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik published a lengthy manifesto where over the course of 1,500 pages repeated three times a quote by Fidel Castro that inspired him.

Elsa Montera Maldonado and Jose Gomez Abad expelled for plotting terrorist attack in New York City in 1962 assisted Julia Sweig in writing her 2002 book on Cuba.*

On page XIV of the acknowledgements of her May 2002 book Inside the Cuban Revolution: Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground Julia Sweig lists a number of people who assisted her in writing the book. Two names stand out: Elsa Montera Maldonado and Jose Gomez Abad who Sweig described as championing the project. This husband and wife team were working as Cuban diplomats at the Cuba Mission in New York City but were in reality State Security agents. Both were expelled for their role in a planned terrorist attack on the Friday after Thanksgiving in 1962 with the objective of detonating 500 kilos of explosives inside Macy’s, Gimbel’s, Bloomingdale’s and Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal.

No doubt Sweig and Goldberg mean well, but before they return to Cuba to continue their respective academic and journalistic pursuits they should consider reading Paul Hollander's Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society. This sociology text analyzes how totalitarian regimes, such as the one in Cuba, are able to disguise the horrors taking place in their systems presenting it in a positive light to visitors.

*New York Times 1962 image and photo of Goldberg and Sweig
taken from Babalu Blog

Cuban democrat Wilman Villar Mendoza on hunger strike near death

Opposition activists report on Wilman Villar Mendoza's health status and call for his freedom

On Sunday, January 15, 2012 (on Martin Luther King Jr's birthday) a large group of the Ladies in White were brutally beaten up and detained as they marched from the Cobre to the hospital Juan Bruno Zayas calling for the release of Wilman Villar Mendoza and that his life be saved.* Wilman has been on a hunger strike for over 50 days protesting his unjust imprisonment. Comparisons are being drawn between his plight and that of the late prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

The Cuban democratic opposition is concerned over the plight of this Cuban dissident who's life hangs in the balance. Little known outside of opposition circles in Cuba Wilman Villar Mendoza was arrested on November14, 2011 during a violent crackdown by the political police on Cuban democrats engaged in a public protest in the town of Contramaestre in Santiago, Cuba. Ten days later in a closed-door, one day sham trial on November 24 Wilman was sentenced to four years in prison for disobedience, resisting arrest and contempt and was sent to Aguadores prison.

Outraged at the injustice committed against him Villar launched a hunger strike the next day and refused to wear the uniform of a common prisoner.

Regime agents blackmailed his wife Maritza Pelegrino threatening to take away her two young daughters for refusing to break with the Ladies in White. The Ladies in White are a civic group of women that advocate, lobby and protest for the release of Cuban political prisoners.

According to his wife, Wilman Villar Mendoza was transferred to the Zayas Hospital in Santiago only when his health took a turn for the worse on January 14.

Reports have appeared in The Miami Herald, Diario de Cuba, Reporteros 24 and blogs such as Uncommon Sense, Capitol Hill Cubans, Pedazos de la Isla, and Babalu Blog describing Wilman presently in a coma and suffering pneumonia.

*According to Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia the following women were attacked by Cuban State Security on January 15, 2012 asking that Wilman Villar Mendoza be freed and not left to die:

Tania Montoya Vázquez, Yanelis Elégica Despaine, Yamiseli Aleaga Kayamo, Karina Quintana Hernández, Madelaine Santo Grillo, Mayelin La O Montero, Darmis Aguedo Zaldivar, Yarisel Figueredo Valdés, Yanella Montero, Vázquez, Aleanna Isaac, Arelys Rodígues Chacón, Aurora Martín Calderín, Miraida Martín Calderín, Yudislaidis Travieso Garlobo, Yusmari Chacón Lamot, Elisa Milagros Reinier Acosta y María Alfonso Córdoba.

In addition to the Ladies in White the following opposition activists were also detained and beaten for calling on Wilman Villar Mendoza be freed and not left to die:

Raumel Vinajera Stevens, Rulisam Ramírez Rodríguez, Bismarck Peña Pérez, Yuselin Ferrer Espinosa, Antonio González Bordonado, Ovidio Martín Castellano, Carlos Martín Calderín, Manuel Santiago Zaldivar González, Andri Verdecia Osorio, Abraham Cabrera Torres, Aurora Martin Calderín, Arelys Rodríguez Chacón, Luis Enrique Losada, Enrique Losada Aguedo, Miraida Martín Calderín.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. on his 83rd birthday

Martin Luther King Jr. in 1966

Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia 83 years ago today on January 15, 1929. He would grow up to be a Baptist minister and civil rights leader and die by an assassins bullet at the age of 39 on April 4, 1968. Both the FBI and KGB carried out active measures against this man in an effort to destroy him and his reputation.

Martin Luther King Jr. on the Mike Douglas show in 1967

Tomorrow the United States will observe Martin Luther King Day, a federal holiday since 1986 and in 2011 a monument to Martin Luther King Jr. was unveiled on the national mall.

Martin Luther King Jr. was brought into the civil rights struggle by the bus boycott that arose out of an act of nonviolent resistance by Rosa Parks on a segregated bus on December 1, 1955. His ability to organize a national social movement begins with the initial steps to organize the Montgomery bus boycott.

Malcolm X on Martin Luther King Jr.

He was criticized by Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael for his nonviolent stand and accused Martin Luther King Jr. of being passive but in fact believed in the importance of having an aggressive attitude.

Martin Luther King Jr. responds to Malcolm X

The critiques against Martin Luther King Jr. and nonviolence are of importance today because around the world in Egypt, Tunisia, Burma, Cuba and elsewhere movements have emerged that are inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.'s example of nonviolent struggle. In the United States elements within the Occupy Wall Street movement have embraced Martin Luther King Jr. and are organizing acts of remembrance on his birthday.

At the same time critical voices have arisen that advocate violence. The historical record surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. and the black power movement demonstrates the success of nonviolent resistance and the failure of violent resistance in achieving the goals of black empowerment.

Diane Nash, a great pioneer of nonviolence from the sit-ins to the Selma march, rejected nonviolence and took up with the siren call of Black Power. Nash described her reasoning:
"If we've done all this through nonviolence, think what we could do if we were just willing to be urban guerrillas and knock over a few banks. [...] "Of course, ten years later I looked up and I hadn't knocked over any banks and I hadn't been a guerilla. I hadn't even been to the rifle range. But I had withdrawn from this painful, creative engagement with nonviolence and democracy behind a big smokescreen of noise."
In addition to deactivating serious activists the lure of violence and urban guerrilla warfare would exact a terrible cost. According to Virginia Postrel, from 1964 to 1971, there were more than 750 riots, killing 228 people and injuring 12,741 others. After more than 15,000 separate incidents of arson, many black urban neighborhoods were in ruins. The end results were ruined neighborhoods; an explosion in crime; and increased poverty.

Human Rights Watch: Political Prisoners Released in Burma

Allow International Monitors to Account for All Remaining Detainees

Pyone Cho, an activist of the 88 Generation Students Group, center, was released from prison on Friday, Jan. 13, 2012. Photo by Associated Press

(New York)The release of key political prisoners on January 13, 2012 is a crucial development in promoting respect for human rights in Burma, but all remaining political prisoners should be freed immediately and unconditionally, Human Rights Watch said today.

Among those released are members of the 88 Generation student group that led the 1988 uprising, including leader Min Ko Naing, Nilar Thein, her husband Kyaw Min Yu, known as Ko Jimmy, as well as Htay Kywe. Shan ethnic leader Khun Tun Oo, monk leader U Gambira, journalists Zaw Thet Htwe, Ngwe Soe Linn, Hla Hla Win, and blogger Nay Phone Latt were also released today.

Burma state media said on January 12 that 651 prisoners would be freed so they can participate in the task of nation-building.

“Years of international calls to release long-detained political prisoners seem to have pushed the government to finally do the right thing,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should ensure that there are no obstacles to these activists participating in public life and upcoming elections.”

The US State Department had estimated that at least 1,100 political prisoners were detained in Burma and the Thai-based Assistance Association of Political Prisoners in Burma counted more than 1,500. Given the closed nature of Burma's justice system, the lack of a free press and unsophisticated communications in one of Asia's poorest countries – particularly in remote ethnic areas affected by conflict – each of these lists may omit significant numbers of people being held for the peaceful expression of their political views.

Human Rights Watch called on the Burmese government to allow international independent monitors to publicly account for all remaining political prisoners.

“The latest releases are wonderful news for the individuals and their families, but foreign governments should continue to push for the release of all political prisoners, and for international monitors to verify the process,” said Pearson. “For years Burma's prisons have been off-limits to any independent monitoring mechanism. The next step for Burma’s government is to allow international monitors to verify the whereabouts and conditions of remaining political prisoners.”