(Washington, DC) - The Cuban government should immediately and unconditionally release the human rights defenders, journalists, and other dissidents who have been arbitrarily detained in the last two days, including those under house arrest, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Cuban government arbitrarily detained at least 50 people leading up to the one-year anniversary of Orlando Zapata Tamayo's death, according to dissidents who spoke to Human Rights Watch by phone. Security forces prevented more than 20 others from leaving their homes, to stop them from taking part in demonstrations commemorating the death of Zapata, human rights defenders and journalists told Human Rights Watch.
Zapata, a political prisoner, died in custody on February 23, 2010, after an 85-day hunger strike to protest poor prison conditions.
"A year after Zapata's tragic death, this latest wave of arrests shows the Cuban government continues to deny its citizens the basic freedoms of assembly and speech," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
In Ciego de ávila, police officers beat a group of dissidents who were demonstrating in support of Zapata, Juan Carlos González Leiva of the Cuban Council of Human Rights Rapporteurs, an independent human rights group, told Human Rights Watch. Leiva reported that several of the victims required medical treatment as a result of the beatings, after which they were detained.
The human rights defender and journalist Guillermo Fariñas told Human Rights Watch that State Security agents surrounded his house at 5 a.m. on February 23. When he tried to leave later in the morning, they told him he was under house arrest. Fariñas was awarded the 2010 European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Other dissidents said they were visited by state security agents in anticipation of the anniversary and warned that they would be imprisoned if they took part in activities commemorating Zapata's death. Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina, one of the dissidents, told Human Rights Watch that he was summoned to Guantanamo police station on February 17 and threatened with incarceration if he participated in the protests. Rodríguez's wife told Human Rights Watch that he and five other dissidents were detained on February 22 while sitting in a public square. They were not demonstrating at the time, his wife said, and all remain in detention.
On February 22, police detained approximately 25 people who were participating in a peaceful protest honoring Zapata in Palma Soriano. Two of the protesters told Human Rights Watch in separate interviews that they and others had been interrogated by State Security officials, who warned them they would be "beaten to a pulp" if they protested the following day.
"Through arbitrary detentions, physical abuse, and threats, the Cuban government has once again shown its willingness to repress its citizens who participate in the most basic civic activities," Vivanco said.