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Cuba: Release of Dissidents Still Leaves Scores in Prison

Raul Castro Government Continues to Criminalize Dissent

(Washington, DC) - The plan to release a group of Cuban political prisoners is a positive step, but the Cuban government should release all political prisoners, Human Rights Watch said today. Cuba should also dismantle its authoritarian laws and practices, which continue to deprive Cubans of their most basic rights, Human Rights Watch said.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Havana announced on July 7, 2010, that the Cuban government would release five political prisoners on the condition that they relocate to Spain with their families, and that an additional 47 political prisoners arrested in 2003 would be released in three to four months.

"While we are relieved for these prisoners and their families, the fact remains that scores of political prisoners locked up under Raul Castro continue to languish in Cuba's prisons," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "So long as Cuba's draconian laws and sham trials remain in place, they will continue to restock the prison cells with new generations of innocent Cubans who dare to exercise their basic rights."

The political prisoners expected to be released are among 75 journalists, human rights defenders, labor activists, and other peaceful dissidents arrested in a massive crackdown by the Cuban government in March 2003. All 75 were tried in closed, summary trials that violated their most basic due process rights, and sentenced to an average of 19 years in prison.

Since taking over control of the government from Fidel Castro in July 2006, Raul Castro has incarcerated scores of political prisoners. The government has relied largely on a provision of the Criminal Code that allows authorities to imprison individuals without ever having committed a crime, on the allegation that they are "dangerous" and might commit one in the future. A recent Human Rights Watch report, "New Castro, Same Cuba," documented more than 40 cases of dissidents who have been imprisoned for "dangerousness" under the Raul Castro government, in addition to scores more sentenced for laws criminalizing free expression and association.

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), a respected human rights group that is not recognized by the Cuban government, has been able to document 167 cases of current political prisoners. Because Human Rights Watch has been able to document  additional cases of people imprisoned for "dangerousness,"  Human Rights Watch believes the number of political prisoners is even higher.

Previous efforts by religious, civil, and political leaders to negotiate with the Cuban government have led to the release of some political prisoners. Reverend Jesse Jackson convinced Fidel Castro to release 26 political prisoners in 1984, and Human Rights Watch's Vivanco secured the release of six in 1995. Talks with Bill Richardson led to the release of three dissidents in 1996, and Jimmy Carter's 2002 visit prompted the release of one more. The visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998, after which more than 80 jailed dissidents were released, was the most successful of these efforts.

"The international community needs to pressure Cuba to go beyond the periodic release of jailed dissidents and instead dismantle the repressive laws, courts, and security forces that put them in prison in the first place," Vivanco said.

In the past, the Cuban government has released political prisoners on parole (licencia extrapenal) rather than releasing them unconditionally. By granting them parole only, the Cuban government leaves open the possibility of returning dissidents to prison to serve out their sentences in the future, intimidating them to keep them from exercising their fundamental rights.

Furthermore, in recent instances such as the February 2008 release of four political prisoners, the Cuban government has forced dissidents to choose between staying in prison and being exiled to Spain, which fundamentally violates their rights as Cuban citizens. Public statements of those involved in the negotiations for the planned releases suggest that the first five prisoners to be released were presented with a similar choice. Human Rights Watch recommend that all prisoners, including those from the group of 75, be released unconditionally and be allowed to stay in Cuba with their families.

The announcement of the prisoners' upcoming release came in the context of the 134-day hunger strike of the Cuban journalist Guillermo Fariñas, who was calling for the release of 26 political prisoners suffering from severe health problems. Fariñas began his hunger strike on February 24, the day after a political prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died following his own 85-day hunger strike. Fariñas reportedly ended his hunger strike on July 8, following the announcement of the release.

Efforts by the US government to press for change in Cuba by imposing a sweeping embargo have proven to be a costly and misguided failure, Human Rights Watch said. The embargo has inflicted severe hardship on the Cuban population as a whole, while doing nothing to improve the human rights situation in Cuba. Rather than isolating Cuba, the policy has isolated the United States, alienating Washington's potential allies on this issue.

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