WASHINGTON — With a visit from Pope Benedict XVI just weeks away, one of Cuba's best-known political dissidents on Thursday called on the pontiff to use his power and visibility as a world leader to shine a light on human rights abuses and political oppression under the Castro regime.
If he has an opportunity to meet with the pope, he will ask him to be an advocate for the oppressed, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet told a congressional subcommittee Thursday. He spoke to a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee through a translator, in testimony delivered over the telephone from Cuba.
"I would say to him, that I would love for him to lobby for our freedom of speech and for a multi-party system, so that everyone can participate and be represented," Biscet said. "We hope that his coming will bring great change to our country."
President George W. Bush awarded Biscet the Medal of Freedom in 2007 while he was still serving a 25-year sentence for his opposition to Fidel Castro's regime. Biscet accused the Cuban government in the mid-1990s of allowing and covering up botched abortions, and he was imprisoned from 1999 to late 2002. He had been free for 37 days when he was arrested again.
Biscet, 50, was freed last March as part of a decision by the government of President Raul Castro to release more than 125 political prisoners — a move that came after pressure by the Roman Catholic Church. Some congressional leaders, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., have nominated him for a Nobel prize.
His testimony Thursday came at considerable personal risk and could lead to his re-arrest, he acknowledged. "Everything is possible," Biscet said. "We're under constant supervision."
The committee did not announce Biscet's name before the hearing, out of concern that Cuban authorities would detain him before he was able to testify from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. During the hearing, Biscet's photo was projected on two separate video screens. His image was on several posters propped up along the wall in the hearing room.
Reps. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., and Albio Sires, D-N.J., said they would write to the pope asking him to meet with Biscet. Rep. David Rivera, R-Fla., said the message to the church couldn't be more clear.
"Now it is up to the Catholic Church to respond to Dr. Biscet," Rivera said. "It is up to the pope himself to respond to Dr. Biscet. I would hope they would be responsive to Dr. Biscet's hope and aspirations and his request of the pope and the Catholic Church."
Biscet on Thursday told the committee that the police in Cuba beat him, disfigured his face and broke his foot in an effort to "stop through torture, stop me from defending human rights."
He also described the conditions he experienced in prison in Cuba. Some prisoners were undressed collectively, disregarding "any respect for human dignity," he said. They were handcuffed at their ankles and hands for more than 12 and as many as 24 hours. Some were hung by their hands, with their feet barely touching the ground.
Cuban journalist Normando Hernandez Gonzalez, also a recently freed political prisoner and now living in Miami, told the committee that women are treated with particular brutality by police. Some women have reported that their captors undressed them, screamed obscenities at them, touched their genitals and threatened them with rape, he said.
"I still have fresh in my mind the screams of prisoners who were being freshly tortured," he said. "I don't know if I'll be able to ever forget that."
Sires called Biscet's testimony untainted by the politics of the Miami exile community. That should give the Castro regime pause, Sires said, because Biscet is one of their own.
"He's not a product of Miami Beach, he's not a product of Miami, he's not a product of Cubans in exile," he said. "This is a man that was educated in Cuba, and he sees that this is a dictator, that this a country that oppresses human rights. That this is a country that allows no one the freedom to express themselves. And he's personally seen what they do to people who are seeking freedom of expression."
Biscet on Thursday vowed to continue what he described as a non-violent movement to change Cuba. Biscet said Cubans expect little to improve while the Castro brothers remain alive, but he said that they can't wait for their deaths to agitate for change in Cuba.
"So we will create change on our own," he said. "We are hoping that we will have the capacity to create non-violent coercion and pressure in order to actually install that political change ourselves."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY