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Cuba’s planned trial of a blind human rights lawyer, along with nine other dissidents and independent journalists, on charges of “disrespect for authority” demonstrates a continuing pattern of political repression, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch has learned that the trial of the 10 defendants is scheduled to be held on Tuesday, April 27.

Juan Carlos González Leiva, a blind lawyer, is the president of the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights (Fundación Cubana de Derechos Humanos). He and most of the other defendants have been held in pretrial detention in eastern Holguín province for more than two years.

“The upcoming trial is a travesty,” said Joanne Mariner, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division. “The defendants face criminal charges that clearly violate their basic rights to freedom of expression.”

The defendants were arrested on March 4, 2002 at Antonio Luaces Iraola Provincial Hospital in Ciego de Ávila (a town in central Cuba), and held without formal charges for six months. They are now reportedly being prosecuted for the crimes of disrespect to the President (desacato al Presidente), disrespect to the police, public disorder and resistance.

Among the defendants are seven political activists (Lázaro Iglesias Estrada, Enrique García Morejón, Antonio Marcelino García Morejón, Delio Laureano Requejo Rodríguez, Virgilio Mantilla Arango, Odalmis Hernández Márquez, and Ana Peláez García) and at least two independent journalists (Léxter Téllez Castro and Carlos Brizuela Yera).

González Leiva, the blind lawyer, reportedly faces a six-year sentence, while the other defendants face sentences ranging from two and a half to seven years. The criminal indictment against González Leiva, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, notes critically that “he was not integrated into mass organizations and was not involved in any socially useful activities.”

The defendants were arrested when they visited the hospital to see an independent journalist who had reportedly been attacked by the police earlier in the day while he was traveling to a meeting of the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights. At the hospital, members of the group shouted statements such as “Long live human rights.” Reacting with disproportional severity to this minor disruption, state security police arrested the group. The police reportedly beat González Leiva when they arrested him, leaving him with a cut on his forehead that required four stitches.

The denial of basic civil and political rights is written into Cuban law. A number of criminal law provisions grant the state extraordinary power to prosecute people who attempt to exercise basic rights to free expression, opinion, association, and assembly. The country’s courts also deny defendants internationally-recognized guarantees of due process, including the right to a public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal.

Under Cuban law, the crime of disrespect for authority (desacato) covers anyone who “threatens, libels or slanders, defames, affronts or in any other way insults or offends, with the spoken word or in writing, the dignity or decorum of an authority, public functionary, or his agents or auxiliaries.” Such actions are punishable by three months to one year in prison. If the person shows disrespect to the president the sanction is deprivation of liberty for one to three years.

In March 2003, police detained scores of political dissidents and others viewed as "counter-revolutionary" in their thinking. By early April, the Cuban courts had sentenced 75 defendants—including such prominent figures as Raúl Rivero, the poet and journalist, and Héctor Palacios, a leader in the pro-democracy movement—to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years.

Last week, on April 15, the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva passed a resolution criticizing Cuba’s human rights practices. The resolution stated that the Commission “deplores the events which occurred last year in Cuba,” a reference to the trials and sentencing of the 75 dissidents.

“The impending trial continues the repressive trend that was so glaringly evident last year in Cuba,” Mariner said.

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