Cuba: Peaceful Protesters Systematically Detained, Abused

Click to expand Image People take part in a demonstration in Havana, on July 11, 2021. © 2021 Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images

(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:

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. The examples cited often fit several of the categories outlined.

Yosney Román Rodríguez Click to expand Image

On July 13, around 9 a.m., several “black beret” agents detained Yosney Román Rodríguez, 25, her siblings Mackyani, 23, and Emiyoslan, 17; and their cousin, Odlanier Santiago Rodríguez, 22. The agents broke into their home in La Güinera, a low-income neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana, handcuffed them, and forced them into a police car. The agents did not show a warrant or give a reason for the arrests, Odlanier and two family members said.

The officers took them to Cien y Aldabó prison. Odlanier said that he was held in an overcrowded cell that had no ventilation or light. He had an asthma crisis one night, he said, but received no medical assistance.

Over seven days he was interrogated five times, with officers saying he was being accused of “public disorder” and throwing rocks and asked him why he had participated in the protests and who had organized them. Odlanier said he was only observing the demonstrations and did not throw rocks.

On July 17 an agent told a relative that Emiyoslan, Yosney, and Mackyani were under investigation for “instigation to commit crimes” because they shouted “Motherland and life” during a demonstration.

On July 21 Odlanier was transferred to Combinado del Este maximum security prison in Havana.

None of them were able to call their family or receive visits from them. Their private lawyer was only able to see them once.

On August 4 Odlanier paid 2,000 Cuban pesos in bail (roughly US$80) and was released. Officers said he was being charged with “assault,” “damage to property,” “instigation to commit crimes,” and “public disorder,” he said.

On August 30 a state security agent told Odlanier to pay an additional 2,000 pesos fine for his case to be closed. The agent said he should stop “wasting his time with acts against the revolution,” he said. His family paid the fine. The documentation about the fine, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, does not indicate why he was punished.

His cousins remain in prison as far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, largely incommunicado.

Abel González Lescay Click to expand Image

Abel González Lescay, a 22-year-old music student, participated in protests in the town of Bejucal, Mayabeque province, July 11. The next day, at 6 a.m., more than 20 police and intelligence officers appeared at his house, asking for him, a relative who witnessed the detention said. When another relative asked to see a warrant, the agents shouldered past into the house, saying they did not have one. They handcuffed González in his bedroom, and loaded him, naked, into a police car.

Hours after a relative went to a police station to report the arbitrary detention, an official of the Technical Department of Inves

tigations (Departamento Técnico de Investigaciones), a Ministry of Interior agency charged with investigating crimes, called to ask the relative to bring clothes for González to the agency’s facility in Bejucal. Officers there said González was under investigation but did not say why or allow the relative to see him.

On July 18, after holding him incommunicado for six days, officers took him home, saying he was under pretrial house arrest pending trial for “public disorder,” a relative said. As far as his family knows, no trial date has been set.

José Daniel Ferrer García Click to expand Image

José Daniel Ferrer García, the 51-year-old president of the opposition group Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU), and his son, José Daniel Ferrer Cantillo, were arrested as they headed to a demonstration in front of the José Martí Theater in Santiago de Cuba at around 5 p.m. on July 11.

The next day, July 12, Ferrer García’s wife searched for them at police stations. When she asked for her husband and son in a police station known as Third Unit of Santiago de Cuba, several officers detained her. They held her for five hours, forcing her to stand in the sun on a patio. When they released her, without charges, an officer told her Ferrer was at the Provincial Unit of Criminal Investigation and Operations (Unidad Provincial de Investigación Criminal y Operaciones, UPICO), a detention center in Santiago de Cuba, and that her husband would serve “a lot of time in prison.”

Ferrer Garcia was charged with “public disorder,” and has been held in pretrial detention, and denied phone calls, since his arrest. In a document ordering Ferrer García’s detention, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, a prosecutor alleges that he “decided to join” protests “against the revolutionary process” and shouted, “Down with Díaz-Canel!” and “Down with hunger!” when being detained. He “talks against revolutionary process,” the document specifies.

Several times, officers at the UPICO refused to acknowledge to Ferrer García’s wife that he was there, and on July 21, when she asked peacefully to see him, they detained her for two hours, she said.

On July 22 the family presented a habeas corpus request for his release. A July 23 ruling rejecting the request, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, did not mention the charges or where he was being held, saying only he was “under investigation.” On August 12 a UPICO officer finally confirmed to his wife that he was there but said he could not receive visitors.

Ferrer García’s wife received a document from a Santiago de Cuba tribunal on August 14, indicating that he would serve 4 years and 14 days in prison in connection with a previous, unrelated incident. In October 2019 security officers had arrested Ferrer García and charged him with assaulting an individual in Santiago de Cuba. In February 2020 Ferrer García was sentenced to four-and-a-half years of “limitations of freedom” for “assault.” The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded in 2020 that García Ferrer’s conviction in the earlier case was arbitrary, the “assault” allegations against him were not “credible,” and the arrest had constituted an “enforced disappearance.”

Nonetheless, in the August 2021 ruling that followed Ferrer Garcia’s protest-related arbitrary detention, the tribunal held that Ferrer García had violated Cuban law requiring people under “limitations of freedom” to “have an honest attitude towards work” and “strictly respect laws.”

An officer told the family that Ferrer García is in Mar Verde prison, on the outskirts of Santiago de Cuba. His son was released on July 17, but remains under investigation for “public disorder.”

María Cristina Garrido Rodríguez Click to expand Image

María Cristina Garrido Rodríguez, a 39-year-old activist of the Cuban Republican party, and her sister, Angélica Garrido Rodríguez, a 41-year-old housewife, participated in protests on the morning of July 11 in Quivicán, Mayabeque province. The protests were peaceful, with demonstrators chanting “Motherland and life,” witnesses said.

The next day, as the sisters were walking to a police station to visit friends who had been detained during demonstrations at night, police and state security agents intercepted and arrested them, two family members said. The agents took them to the police station, from which they were later transferred to “el técnico,” a facility of the state security’s investigation department.

Angélica was not allowed to receive visits until July 26, when her husband was able to see her. An officer stayed in the room, so she could not say much about her detention, a relative said. She had not been beaten, she told her relative, but she suffered psychological abuse. For some time, she had shared a cell with a man, Angélica informed her relative.

On July 19 María Cristina was transferred to San José de las Lajas prison, a facility for detainees with HIV. She was not allowed to make a phone call or receive visits until July 31, when her husband came for 15 minutes, a relative said. María Cristina told him a female officer had punched her in the legs and arms and awakened her repeatedly in the early morning, forcing her to shout “Long live Fidel!” and “Long live the revolution!” María Cristina refused once, and was sent, for 24 hours, to what she described as a “punishment cell,” dark and without water or sanitation facilities.

María Cristina is being investigated for “resistance,” “assault,” “instigation to commit crimes,” “spreading an epidemic,” and “public disorder.” Her private lawyer has not been able to see the case file but learned she stands accused of leading the demonstrations in Quivicán.

In connection with her participation in protests, Angélica is under investigation for “public disorder,” “spreading an epidemic,” and “instigation to commit crimes.” She also stands accused of “contempt,” “assault,” and “resistance,” for allegedly resisting arrest, relatives said.

Both are now in pretrial detention at Guatao women’s prison.

Gabriela Zequeira Hernández Click to expand Image

Gabriela Zequeira Hernández, a 17-year-old student, was detained in San Miguel de Padrón, in Havana province, on July 11. Around 5 p.m., as she was walking past a demonstration, several female “black beret” agents grabbed her by the arm, handcuffed her, and forced her into a police car, she said. Zequeira asked why she was being detained. “This happens when you protest and are a counterrevolutionary,” she said that one of the agents said.

At the police station, officers accused her of being “against the revolution” and causing “public disorder.” They held her in a cell with 16 other women, all adults. The cell was crowded and dark, she said, with little ventilation. Zequeira slept in a concrete bed and was given no food. The next day, authorities took her to Cien y Aldabó prison.

Zequeira told the officers she was under 18, but they refused to let her call her mother. Two female officers made her strip and squat naked five times while she coughed and pressed on her belly. One of them told her to inspect her own vagina with a finger, Zequeira said.

Officers placed her in a cell with four other female detainees, all adults. Again, they refused her request to call her mother. “You are an adult now,” one officer told her. Officers repeatedly woke her up at night for interrogations, Zequeira said, asking why she had protested and who was “financing” her. Some nights, officers played loud music. They showed Zequeira photos of the protests and said they would release her if she identified the leaders. One officer threatened to take her and two men to the area known as the “pavilion,” where detainees have conjugal visits.

Zequeira’s mother searched for her. At Villa Marista, a state security facility, an officer directed her to Cien y Aldabó, she said. On July 13 Zequeira’s mother found Zequeira’s name on a list of detainees there. Officers let her leave personal hygiene items and a phone card but not to see her daughter, she said.

On July 22 Zequeira stood trial. She was allowed to see the lawyer her mother had hired a few minutes before the trial, she said. Twelve other women she did not know were tried with her in an hour-long procedure. One person per family was allowed in, Zequeria and her mother said. The prosecutor did not present evidence against Zequeira, but the judge sentenced her to eight months in prison, Zequeira and her mother said.

Zequeira was released to house arrest on July 25, pending a ruling on an appeal her lawyer had filed. On August 17 a higher court upheld her conviction but ruled that because she is a child, she could serve the sentence at home. Zequeira and her family have not been able to obtain copies of the rulings.

Michel Parra González Click to expand Image

Michel Parra González, a 20-year-old hospital employee, and his 22-year-old sister Ana Laura were detained while demonstrating peacefully on July 11, in the city of Matanzas, the capital of Matanzas province. A state security agent and several police officers arrested them violently and took them to “el técnico,” a facility of state security’s investigation department, they said.

The authorities interrogated Ana Laura repeatedly, asking if someone had “paid” her to protest and whether she was a “leader” of the demonstrations. They held her with four other detainees in a dark, poorly ventilated cell, Ana Laura said. She was never allowed to make a phone call. During her last interrogation, officers told her to sign a paper saying she would not protest anymore, and they revealed that she was being investigated for “public disorder.”

Michel was held in an unsanitary cell with seven others. He was never allowed to make a phone call, he said. The day after his arrest, he was taken to an interrogation room where eight police kicked him and hit him with their fists and batons for about 15 minutes. He received blows to the back, hands, feet, testicles, and buttocks. “We should shoot a bullet in people like you,” he said that one of them said. “This is for you to know what happens when you oppose the revolution,” another one said. He said he never received medical attention for the blows.

On July 18 Michel was transferred to the Combinado del Sur prison, where officers refused his request to file a report about the beatings. Officers took his fingerprints and told him to sign documents admitting he had committed a crime, he said. Michel refused. Officers repeatedly accused him of being a “worm,” a common expression used against government critics in Cuba. A prosecutor asked him why he had participated in the demonstrations, whether he was a “leader” of the protests, and whether someone had “financed” him.

On July 24 a police agent showed Michel and Ana Laura’s mother a document showing they were charged with “public disorder.” The officer said she could hire a lawyer. No lawyer in the city agreed to take the case, apparently for fear of retaliation, she said.

Michel was released to pretrial house arrest on August 2, and Laura on August 6. Every day, two state security agents patrolled outside their homes to ensure compliance. In late September, police officers summoned them to a police station, where they were asked to pay 1.000 Cuban pesos (US$40) for their cases to be closed. They paid.

Dario Quiñonez

When Dario Quiñonez (pseudonym), 19, heard about the protests in Havana he decided to go see them, because he felt they were “historic.” He did not join in or chant, he said, but at one point raised his hands, making a “peace and love” sign with his fingers. At that moment, four men in civilian clothes, pushed him to the ground. He jumped up and ran away, fearing they would beat him. One shouted “catch him” and another, who held a baseball-bat-like stick, tried to beat him. Two others grabbed him and kicked his legs. A police car approached, and he got in, to avoid being beaten.

The officers took him to the Zanja police station, in Havana, he said, where there were so many detainees that he was held in a corridor. Officers refused his request to make a call.

Hours later, he was transferred to the “el técnico” facility, belonging to state security’s investigation department, where two officers told him to strip for inspection. Later, one of the officers said they had a video showing him throwing rocks during the protest. Quiñonez told Human Rights Watch he hadn’t thrown rocks. The officers asked who had “invited” him to demonstrate, whether someone had “paid” him, and whether he belonged to any opposition organization.

The authorities held Quiñonez in a cell, telling him to keep staring at the floor, he said. The cell had no ventilation or natural light, so he didn’t know if it was day or night. His repeated requests to learn what time it was were denied. He lost all track of time, he said.

While detainees were sleeping, officers played the Cuban state TV channel at high volume. The authorities repeatedly interrogated Quiñonez about the protests, he said, threatening him with a prison sentence of five years for vandalism.

On July 20 an officer took him out of his cell, to stand trial. His family was never notified, so they could not get a lawyer for him, Quiñonez said. He was tried with 11 other people. The only evidence the prosecutor presented, Quiñonez said, was the statement of a police officer saying he was throwing rocks. He denied the allegation. A court sentenced him to 10 months in prison for “public disorder.” He was never given a copy of the ruling.

On August 6 a higher court changed his sentence to eight months of community service and a fine of 3,460 Cuban pesos (roughly US$145).

Juan Raúl del Río Noguez Click to expand Image

Juan Raúl del Río Noguez, 75, was walking home with a relative on July 11 when they saw a protest in downtown Havana and decided to join. As they chanted “Motherland and life!” and “long-live José Martí,” a Cuban poet and independence hero, several officers in civilian clothes arrested his relative, 30-year-old Yunior Villarejo Estevez. Del Río Noguez tried to intervene, he said, but two agents grabbed his arms, immobilized him, and forced him into a police car.

Officers took him to a police station in Zanja Havana and asked him why he had participated in the protests. Hours later, they transferred him to Cien y Aldabó prison, where, he said, he was told to sign a document that he was not allowed to read.

Del Río Noguez was held in a small, overcrowded cell with three other detainees. He was not allowed to receive visits or call his family or lawyers. He lost track of time, he said, because he could not see any daylight.

Officers interrogated him twice at Cien y Aldabó, asking who had “convened” and “financed” the protests, and whether he could identify their “leader.” During the second interrogation, officers told him he was under investigation for “public disorder.”

On July 20 an officer told him that he was to be tried through a “summary” process. The trial started hours later. Nobody in his family knew about it, so they could not hire a lawyer, he said. Eleven other detainees were tried with him. Del Río Noguez did not understand what was happening at trial, he said, or the nature of the charge against him. The only evidence the prosecutor presented, he said, were statements from two police officers. The court sentenced Del Río Noguez to a year under house arrest for “public disorder.” He has not received a copy of the ruling.

His relative, Yunior Villarejo Estevez, was also put on separate trial on July 20 and sentenced to 10 months in prison. As far as Human Rights watch has been able to determine, he remains imprisoned.

Magdelys Curbelo Click to expand Image

Officers detained Magdelys Curbelo, a 22-year-old culinary student, at about 3:30 p.m. on July 11, as she participated in a peaceful protest in downtown Havana. Police took her phone, grabbed her by the hair, threw her onto the street, and forced her into a police car, a relative said.

They held her at a police station for hours without giving her water or food, a relative said. Around 1 a.m., the authorities transferred her to Cien y Aldabó prison, where she was held in a cell with 11 others. They only had water in a sink in the cell twice a day for a few minutes. The cell was crowded, poorly ventilated, and very hot, a relative said.

Curbelo’s mother searched for her at police stations. On July 15, officers at Cien y Aldabó confirmed she was there, but said she could not receive visits. They told Curbelo’s mother not to report the arrest on social media and said she could bring personal hygiene items.

Officers repeatedly woke her at night for interrogations, a relative said. A colonel asked her to record a video saying she was being detained in appropriate conditions and receiving medical attention and good food, a family member said. The officer threatened her with a long prison sentence. She refused repeatedly but ultimately agreed.

On July 20, a state security agent called Curbelo’s mother saying Curbelo would be tried for “public disorder” and that Curbelo’s mother should hire a lawyer.

Curbelo’s mother was able to hire a lawyer the next day. Curbelo was put on trial on July 22, but lack of time kept the lawyer from gathering evidence, a relative of Curbelo said. Curbelo was tried, along with 15 others, and sentenced to 10 months in prison for “public disorder.” Her mother was the only relative allowed to attend the trial.

Curbelo was returned to Cien y Aldabó, and two days later was released to house arrest. On August 10, an appeals court affirmed the conviction but allowed her to serve the 10-month sentence outside of prison, under “restrictions on liberty,” including a prohibition on leaving her province and a requirement that she call a police station every month. She was also required to pay a 6,000 Cuban peso (US$247) fine. Source: Human Rights Watch

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