March 18, 2004

A Joint Statement by Freedom House, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations on the first anniversary of the crackdown on peaceful dissent in Cuba

Exactly one year ago, on March 18, 2003, the Cuban government launched a massive crackdown on peaceful dissidents, independent journalists, human rights defenders, and independent labor unionists, librarians, medical doctors, and teachers. Since the crackdown, all 75 prisoners remain incarcerated and are reportedly being held in substandard and inhumane conditions.

Over the following three weeks, 75 of those arrested were tried, convicted and sent to prison with sentences ranging from 6 to 28 years. The government accused the democracy advocates of attempting to subvert state authority, of spying for the United States and other governments, and of reporting lies to the foreign press about the Cuban economy. The trials fell far short of international human rights standards. Judges and prosecutors in Cuba are not independent, but operate under direct government control. International observers were barred from the proceedings. Defense lawyers were not given an adequate opportunity to prepare their client’s defense. They were granted access to court files less than 24 hours before trial, and, in most cases, they did not see their clients until an hour before court proceedings began.

At the same time as the clampdown on democracy advocates, the Cuban government also condemned to death and executed three young black Cubans who had attempted to leave the island illegally by hijacking a small ferry. Detained on April 4, the three men were summarily executed seven days later, even though they did not physically harm anyone during the hijacking. Their relatives were informed about the executions only after the fact, when they received notification to retrieve the young men’s bodies.

Since the crackdown, all 75 prisoners remain incarcerated and are reportedly being held in substandard and inhumane conditions. Most of them are held in prisons hundreds of miles from their homes, making family visits very difficult if not almost impossible. Many of the imprisoned, such as economists Oscar Espinosa Chepe and Marta Beatriz Roque, are not receiving adequate medical treatment for conditions that, in some cases, have developed during incarceration and are life-threatening. Others, like Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet, have been held in solitary confinement for months, denied family visits and access to sunlight. In some cases, like that of prisoner Blas Giraldo Reyes, the government is harassing relatives of the incarcerated so that they avoid contact with other dissidents, threatening harsher punishments for their loved ones in prison.

Héctor Palacios, Leonel Grave de Peralta, Marcelo López Bañobre, Roberto De Miranda, and Luis Enrique Ferrer are other prisoners whose activities as advocates of basic rights and freedoms, and as supporters of the Varela Project, place them within the ambit of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. This Declaration, adopted by the U.N. in 1998, upholds the right of individuals and organizations to promote and protect human rights. According to the terms of the Declaration, all persons have the right to effective access to participation in the government of their country and in the conduct of public affairs. The Declaration also provides that everyone has the right to the lawful exercise of his or her profession and to participate in peaceful activities against violations of human rights. The Varela Project is a public initiative in Cuba that collects signatories to a petition calling for fundamental reforms. Cuban law provides that if more than 10,000 voters support a proposition it should be put to a referendum. To date, more than 25,000 people have signed the Varela Project petition calling for democracy and the respect of basic freedoms.

We call upon the Cuban government to uphold the rights of all Cubans who wish to promote and defend human rights according to their conscience.

Now, on the first anniversary of their arrest, we vigorously condemn the continued imprisonment in Cuba of the 75 human rights defenders, independent journalists, democracy advocates, independent librarians and other activists. These Cuban citizens were imprisoned solely for exercising their basic human rights to free expression and assembly, and for promoting greater respect for human and civil rights in Cuba. We urge the Cuban authorities to order their immediate and unconditional release, and to ensure that all prisoners are treated in accordance with basic international standards and norms until they are released.

We call on the members of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, currently meeting in Geneva, to unequivocally condemn the continued imprisonment of human rights defenders and democracy advocates in Cuba. We urge the Cuban government to cooperate with the human rights mechanisms of the United Nations, and to permit the unconditional access to Cuba of its representatives.

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