(Washington, DC) – The Cuban government has systematically engaged in arbitrary detention, ill-treatment of detainees, and abuse-ridden criminal prosecutions in response to overwhelmingly peaceful anti-government protests in July 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. The consistent and repeated patterns of abuses by multiple security forces, in multiple locations across Cuba, strongly suggest a plan by Cuban authorities to repress and suppress the demonstrations.
On July 11 thousands of Cubans took to the streets across the country in landmark demonstrations protesting longstanding restrictions on rights, scarcity of food and medicines, and the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Cuban authorities responded by arresting hundreds of protesters and bystanders, including well-known critics and ordinary citizens. Officers routinely subjected many of them to brutal abuses, including gender-based violence, in detention, and prosecuted dozens in trials that violated basic due process guarantees. At least one protester died. Hundreds remain in prison or under house arrest, including some children under age 18.
“When thousands of Cubans took to the streets in July, the Cuban government responded with a brutal strategy of repression designed to instill fear and suppress dissent,” said Juan Pappier, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Peaceful protesters and other critics have been systematically detained, held incommunicado and abused in horrendous conditions, and subjected to sham trials following patterns that indicate these human rights violations are not the actions of rogue agents.”
Human Rights Watch has documented human rights abuses including arbitrary detentions, ill-treatment in detention, and abusive criminal proceedings against 130 victims in 13 of Cuba’s 15 provinces, as well as in Isle of Youth, a small Cuban island considered a “special municipality.” Between July and October Human Rights Watch interviewed by phone more than 150 people, including activists, victims, their relatives, journalists, and lawyers with direct knowledge of the cases; reviewed case files, fines levied against protesters, press reports and publications by Cuban rights groups; and corroborated photos and videos.
Officials involved in the abuses include members of the intelligence services, known in Cuba as “state security;” the military; the national police; and the special national brigade of the Interior Ministry, known as “black berets.” Government-organized groups of civilians known as “rapid response brigades” were also involved in several beatings. Prosecutors and judges, who lack independence from the government, enabled and took part in abusive criminal proceedings.
On July 11, when the demonstrations began, President Miguel Díaz-Canel urged supporters and security forces to respond to the protests violently. “We call on all revolutionaries to go to the streets to defend the revolution,” he said. “The order to fight has been given.” Several organizations reported countrywide internet outages that day, followed by erratic connectivity, including restrictions on social media and messaging platforms. The Cuban government has in the past used internet restrictions to limit the ability of critics to mobilize.
Human Rights Watch found that officers repeatedly detained peaceful protesters and bystanders, and prevented people from protesting by arresting critics as they headed to the demonstrations. Over 1,000 people were arrested, according to the Cuban rights group Cubalex, with more than 500 still detained and many others under house arrest.
Diubis Laurencio Tejeda, 36-year-old singer, died on July 12 during a demonstration in La Güinera, a low-income neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana. The Cuban Human Rights Observatory, a nongovernmental organization, said that he was shot in the back by a police officer. Nobody has been held accountable for the death.
Human Rights Watch’s research indicates that the July demonstrations were overwhelmingly peaceful. Many protesters chanted “Liberty!” or “Motherland and life,” referencing a song performed by Cuban artists that repurposes the Cuban government’s old slogan, “motherland or death” (patria o muerte), and criticizes repression in the country. In the 130 cases documented by Human Rights Watch, Cuban authorities accused only a handful of detainees of engaging in violence, most often by throwing rocks during protests. In most of these cases, the detainees or their families denied that they engaged in violence, and in all of them the criminal prosecutions were marred by serious due process violations and the sentences sought or imposed by Cuban authorities against the detainees appear excessive.
In most of the cases Human Rights Watch documented, detainees were held incommunicado for days or even weeks, violently arrested, and, in some cases ill-treated during detention. Some were forced to squat naked, apparently deliberately deprived of sleep, brutally beaten, and held in cells without natural light where they say they lost track of time. Others were threatened with reprisals against them or their families for protesting.
Most detainees suffered abusive and repeated interrogations, at times in the middle of the night, in which they were often questioned about the “organization” and “financing” of demonstrations, and threatened with long prison terms.
Gabriela Zequeira Hernández, a 17-year-old student, said she was arrested in San Miguel de Padrón, Havana province, as she was walking past a demonstration on July 11. During detention, she said two female officers made her strip, squat naked five times while she coughed, and pressed on her belly. One of them told her to inspect her own vagina with her finger. Days later, a male officer threatened to take her and two men to the area known as the “pavilion,” where detainees have conjugal visits. Officers repeatedly woke her up at night for interrogations, Zequeira said, asking why she had protested and who was “financing” her.
On July 22 she was sentenced to eight months in prison for “public disorder.” She was only able to see her private lawyer a few minutes before the hearing. On appeal, a higher court allowed her to serve her sentence in house arrest. Zequeira and her family said they have not been able to obtain copies of the rulings.
Many detainees were held in dark, crowded, and unsanitary prisons cells, with little access to clean water or face masks to prevent the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19. Confirmed positive cases of Covid-19 reached some of their highest peaks in Cuba in July and August. Some protesters appeared to have contracted the virus in detention.
Many peaceful protesters have been sentenced through “summary” criminal trials that lacked basic due process guarantees. Protesters were tried jointly, often in groups of more than 10, in largely closed hearings, in which prosecutors frequently accused them of committing vaguely defined crimes, such as “public disorder,” based solely on witness statements by police officers.
The authorities systematically violated detainees’ rights to a fair trial. Officers routinely delayed informing detainees about reasons for their arrest for several days. Detainees’ relatives and lawyers rarely had access to the criminal case files or copies of the rulings, making legal defense virtually impossible. In the few cases in which detainees had legal representation, their lawyers were only allowed to speak with them for a few minutes before the trial.
On August 19, Cuban authorities said that 67 people had been sentenced in connection with the protests. In most cases, peaceful protesters were sentenced to between 10 months and a year in prison, though a few were sent to house arrest after their appeal or were released after paying a fine, Human Rights Watch found.
For selected cases, please see below.
For a full list of cases documented by Human Rights Watch, please click here: https://www.hrw.org/video-photos/interactive/2021/10/18/case-descriptions-protestors-detained-cuban-government-july
All of the cases Human Rights Watch documented are based on direct accounts by the victim, a relative, or their lawyer. Unless otherwise noted in the text, the accounts below are based on these interviews.