(New York) – The Cuban government should immediately and unconditionally release Maykel Castillo Pérez and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, artists who are set to stand trial starting on May 30, 2022, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today. Concerned governments, especially from Latin America and Europe, should monitor the trial and call for the artists’ release.
Otero Alcántara, a visual artist, and Castillo Pérez, a rap singer who is also known by his artistic name “Osorbo,” have been in pretrial detention for nearly a year. A prosecutor has requested that they be sentenced to seven and ten years in prison, respectively, on a range of charges related to their participation in a peaceful demonstration and an artistic performance, and their criticism of President Miguel Díaz-Canel.
“Maykel Castillo Pérez and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara are being prosecuted for exercising their human right to criticize their own government,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Latin American governments should not stay silent when artists are threatened with prison for speaking out, the extreme intolerance typical of brutal dictatorships in the region’s past.”
“Governments in the Americas and Europe should closely monitor the trial against these prisoners of conscience in Cuba, who should never have spent a day in prison,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International. “In a country where more than 700 people, including some children under 18, are imprisoned for simply expressing themselves, it is of utmost importance that these trials be subject to international scrutiny.”
Otero Alcántara, a member of the San Isidro Movement, formed to critique government censorship, was detained on July 11, 2021, after posting a video saying he would join island-wide peaceful protests that day. More than 700 people arrested during the demonstration remain in detention, according to the Cuban rights group Cubalex. Castillo Pérez, one of the authors of “Motherland and Life” (“Patria y Vida”), a song critical of the Cuban government that was adopted as a popular protest anthem, was detained by state security officials on May 18, 2021.
Castillo Pérez, who has experienced multiple short-term arbitrary detentions, was arrested at his home. His family did not know where he was until May 31, when Cuban authorities informed them that he was being held in the Pinar del Río prison, where he remains in detention. The family was only notified a few days after the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances had urged the Cuban government to reveal Castillo Pérez’s place of detention.
In January 2022, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Castillo Pérez had been arbitrarily detained and said that the Cuban government should release him immediately. The UN experts found that Castillo Pérez had been detained for exercising his fundamental rights and had suffered due process violations, including abusive limitations to his right to defend himself. The experts found credible evidence that, prior to his latest detention, Castillo Pérez had been arrested more than 120 times for participating in protests and criticizing the Cuban government.
In February, a prosecutor in Havana requested that Castillo Pérez be sentenced to 10 years in prison for the crimes of “public disorder,” “defamation of national institutions, organizations, heroes and martyrs of the nation,” “contempt,” and “assault.” A court document Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reviewed indicates that some charges are connected to memes Castillo Pérez published on Facebook criticizing President Díaz-Canel and other Cuban authorities. Other charges are connected to an April 4, 2021 peaceful protest in Havana, during which a police officer tried to arrest Castillo Pérez and a group of local residents defended him, preventing the detention.
Otero Alcántara, whom Amnesty International has named prisoner of conscience several times during multiple arbitrary arrests, is being held at the Guanajay maximum security prison in Artemisa province.
The same court document indicates that the prosecutor is seeking a combined sentence of seven years for Otero Alcántara. He is being charged with “insulting national symbols” for his use of the Cuban flag in the performance piece Drapeau, in which he either wore the Cuban flag or carried it around with him 24 hours a day for a month
The prosecutor also charged him with “public disorder” and “contempt” for gathering with Castillo Pérez and other people during the April 4 protest, playing “Motherland and Life” in public and saying “offensive words” against former president Raúl Castro.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have learned that Cuban authorities have repeatedly offered to release Castillo Pérez and Otero Alcántara in exchange for them leaving the country indefinitely – a historic practice by the Cuban government that has been applied to other critics in recent months, in violation of the right to enter one’s own country. Otero Alcántara has publicly rejected the offer. Cuban authorities have seemingly backtracked from their offer to Castillo Pérez.
Nobody should be forced to choose between leaving their own country or facing abusive criminal charges for which they should not be prosecuted or imprisoned in the first place, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said.
The prosecution against Otero Alcántara and Castillo Pérez is part of a much broader pattern of systematic abuses against Cuban artists and other government critics and protesters. In recent years, Cuban authorities have jailed, prosecuted, and forced into exile dozens of Cuban artists, including from the “San Isidro Movement” and “27N,” which gather artists, intellectuals, and journalists who are critical of the government.
Cuban authorities have also engaged in arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of detainees, and held unfair mass trials, mostly behind closed doors, in response to overwhelmingly peaceful anti-government protests in July 2021. Dozens of protesters have been sentenced to up to 30 years in prison, in trials in which prosecutors have frequently charged them with vaguely defined crimes, such as “public disorder” and “sedition.”
Cuban authorities should drop charges designed to silence dissent against all protesters and critics, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said. To the extent that the trials proceed, authorities should allow journalists, human rights observers, and staff of foreign embassies in Cuba to be present at the trials, including at the one against Otero Alcántara and Castillo Pérez, the organizations said.