Amnesty International: Sharp rise in short-term detentions of Cuban dissidents

Miami HeraldMarch 22, 2012 

Amnesty International said Thursday that Cuba has kept up a “permanent campaign of harassment” against those who demand respect for civil and political rights.

But its tactics have changed from long-term detentions to a churning of dissidents, human rights activists and independent journalists who are picked up frequently, held for short periods and released, the international human rights organization said in a new report.

Amnesty pointed out, for example, that Caridad Caballero Batista, an independent journalist from Holguin and a member of the Ladies in White, had been detained more than 17 times since July 2011 for reporting on demonstrations and human rights abuses. She often was released after a few hours.

“The repression in Cuba is as strong as ever,’’ said Gerardo Ducos, Cuba researcher at Amnesty and author of the just released report Routine repression: Political short-term detentions and harassment in Cuba.

“After the mass release of prisoners of conscience in 2011, we have seen authorities sharpening their strategy to silence dissent by harassing activists and journalists with short-term detentions and public acts of repudiation,’’ he said.

The last of 75 dissidents imprisoned in a March 2003 crackdown known as the Black Spring were released last year and most were sent into exile in Spain. Cardinal Jaime Ortega also was instrumental in convincing Cuban leader Raúl Castro to release additional prisoners.

Although Amnesty currently has adopted four Cuban prisoners of conscience, two of whom have been imprisoned since Christmas Day 2010, shorter detentions have become the norm.

“Most of those detained in these circumstances may be prisoners of conscience even if they are released after a short period of detention,’’ said the report.

In 2011, Hablemos Press Information Center, a non-governmental news agency that monitors human rights abuses in Cuba, received reports of 3,835 detentions — a two-fold increase from the previous year.

In the first two months of this year, Ducos said, the news agency received reports of more than 800 short-term detentions.

The increased availability of cell phones and new media has enhanced activists’ ability to report and document cases but Ducos said the government also has stepped up repression.

Despite the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI for a three-day visit next week, the detentions have continued, Amnesty said.

The Ladies in White, a group organized by relatives of those imprisoned during the Black Spring who attend mass dressed in white, have been told they can no longer stage weekly marches after mass at St. Rita’s Church in Havana.

Ducos said he also has received reports that Ladies in White who usually attend mass at the shrine of Our Lady of Charity in the town of El Cobre, outside Santiago, have been kept away for the past two Sundays. Only residents are allowed to go into the area around the shrine — ostensibly for security reasons, he said.

Benedict is scheduled to sleep at a priests’ residence in El Cobre on Monday night and will spend a short time in private prayer at the shrine before flying on to Havana.

“The Ladies in White have repeatedly suffered harassment and intimidation as they have attempted to carry out their peaceful activities,’’ said the report.

Amnesty has called for immediate release of the prisoners of conscience and an end to the “harassment, intimidation and persecution of human rights activists, independent journalists and government critics who peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.”

It is also calling for the reform or revocation of a number of laws that have been used to prosecute dissidents and human rights activists.

Although a number of groups have written to Benedict urging him to meet with dissidents or to ask for the release of prisoners during his visit to Cuba, Ducos said Amnesty had not been in touch with the pope.

Monitoring human rights abuses is a difficult task in Cuba, said Ducos. Amnesty had been permitted in Cuba only twice since 1990, he said.

Information is provided by numerous contacts and Amnesty tries to double-check everything, but Ducos said it’s difficult to confirm some allegations, especially reports of beatings.

Thirteen dissidents who occupied the Our Lady of Charity Church in Havana last week reported that some of their numbers were dragged and beaten when police removed them. But the Catholic Church, which asked police to intervene to clear the group from the church, said they were removed peacefully in 10 minutes.

“Like everything coming out of Cuba, there are often two or three versions of events. Sometimes things are really difficult to corroborate,’’ Ducos said.

But the bottom line, he said, is the government is not allowing groups, such as the Ladies in White, “to occupy public space in Cuba. There is no middle point in Cuba. As Fidel Castro has said many times: you’re either with the revolution or you are against it.’’

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