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The Cuban regime has committed systematic human rights violations in response to the massive July 2021 protests with the apparent goal of punishing protesters and deterring future protests, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today, on the anniversary of the demonstrations.

The 37-page report, “Prison or Exile: Systematic Repression Against the July 2021 Protests in Cuba,” documents a large number of human rights violations committed in the context of the protests, including arbitrary arrests, abusive criminal prosecutions, and torture. . The repression of the dictatorship and its lack of interest in addressing the underlying causes that brought Cubans to the streets, including limited access to food and medicine, have generated a human rights crisis that has caused a drastic increase in the number of people fleeing the country.

“A year ago, thousands of Cuban men and women protested demanding rights and freedoms, but the regime gave many of them only two options: prison or exile,” said Juan Pappier, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Governments in Latin America and Europe must urgently increase their scrutiny of human rights violations in Cuba and prioritize a coordinated and multilateral response before this crisis escalates.”

On July 11, 2021, thousands of Cubans took to the streets in the largest nationwide anti-government demonstrations since the 1959 revolution. These overwhelmingly peaceful protests arose in reaction to human rights violations taking place in the island decades ago, food and medicine shortages, and the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 170 people located in Cuba, including victims of abuse, their families, and lawyers. HRW also reviewed court documents and corroborated photos and videos sent directly to investigators or posted on social media. Members of the Independent Forensic Experts Group (IFEG) of the International Council for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture (IRCT), an international organization made up of renowned forensic experts, issued expert opinions on some evidence of abuse.

Shortly after the demonstrations began, dictator Miguel Díaz-Canel urged government supporters and security forces to respond to the protests with violence. “We call on all revolutionaries to take to the streets to defend the Revolution,” he said. “The combat order is given.”

Diubis Laurencio Tejeda, a 36-year-old singer, died during the demonstrations, apparently as a result of police action. The Cuban human rights organization Cubalex reports that more than 1,400 people were detained, including more than 700 who are still deprived of their liberty. State law enforcement officials repeatedly detained peaceful protesters, arrested critics on their way to demonstrations, or barred them from leaving their homes for days or weeks.

In most of the documented cases, detainees were held incommunicado for days, weeks, and sometimes months, unable to make phone calls or receive visits from relatives or lawyers. Some were beaten, forced to squat naked, or subjected to ill-treatment, including sleep deprivation and other abuses, in some cases amounting to torture.

Cuban courts have ratified the sentences against more than 380 protesters and bystanders, including several children. Many trials took place in military courts, in violation of international law. Numerous protesters were prosecuted for “sedition” and sentenced to disproportionate prison terms of up to 25 years for their alleged involvement in violent incidents, such as stone-throwing during protests.

Prosecutors framed actions such as peacefully protesting or insulting the president or the police, which constitute a legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and association, as criminal conduct. Many protesters and bystanders were convicted based on unreliable or uncorroborated evidence, such as statements made exclusively by members of the security forces or alleged “smell prints” of the defendants found on stones.

The victims and their relatives said they were repeatedly intimidated by security force agents, in some cases forcing them to leave the country.

Orelvys Cabrera Sotolongo, a 36-year-old journalist for the Cubanet news website, was detained in Cárdenas, Matanzas province, as he was leaving demonstrations on July 11. The officers repeatedly questioned him and told him that he would never see his family again. He was only allowed to make one phone call 10 days after his arrest. He spent part of his detention with eight other detainees in a one and a half meter by two meter cell, with little ventilation, light and access to water.

He was released on August 19, but was repeatedly told by officials that he must leave the country. In December, he and his partner fled. They have applied for asylum in the United States.

Security force agents arrested Elier Padrón Romero, a 26-year-old masonry assistant, on July 21 in La Güinera, a low-income neighborhood in Havana province. His mother said the officers beat him and other detainees, saying “if they kept thinking like that, they were going to disappear.” In December, a Havana court convicted Padrón Romero of “sedition” because he allegedly incited people to join a July 12 protest and “go ahead” against a police cordon. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Following an appeal, the Supreme Court reduced the sentence to 10 years.

Cuban authorities have also taken steps to dismantle the limited civic space that allowed the protests to take place. In May 2022, the National Assembly approved a new penal code that includes multiple vague and imprecise regulations that could be used to criminalize peaceful opposition to the government. The new code also establishes the death penalty for various crimes, including “sedition,” a charge used against many July 11 protesters, and “acts against the independence of the state.”

The number of Cubans fleeing the country has increased dramatically. The US Border Patrol apprehended more than 118,000 Cubans between January and May 2022, compared to 17,000 in the same period in 2021. The US Coast Guard has intercepted more than 2,900 Cubans at sea from October 2021; the highest number, by far, in the last five years. Many Cubans have also fled to other countries.

The governments of Latin America, the United States, Canada and the European Union should adopt measures to guarantee a multilateral and coordinated approach towards Cuba that prioritizes human rights. To do this, they should unequivocally condemn the repression and denounce the human rights situation in the country before the relevant United Nations bodies, in particular the Human Rights Council.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, who has rarely denounced abuses in Cuba, is due to publicly condemn the country’s systematic human rights violations before leaving office at the end of August.

For decades, the Cuban regime has benefited from a dysfunctional response from the international community, which has failed to effectively promote human rights progress in the country, Human Rights Watch said. Many Latin American governments – including, recently, Mexico and Argentina – have been reluctant to criticize abuses in Cuba and have even praised the Cuban dictator, despite his disastrous human rights record.

“The brave protesters who took to the streets in Cuba last year have every reason to believe that they have been abandoned by much of the international community,” said Pappier.

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José Martí
José Martí
Nacionalista cubano, poeta, filósofo, ensayista, periodista, traductor, profesor y editor.

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