Amnesty: It leads hemisphere in `prisoners of conscience’
Amnesty International on Monday declared all 75 Cuban government opponents jailed during an islandwide sweep in mid-March ‘‘prisoners of conscience,’’ making Cuba the country with the highest number of prisoners with that status in the Western Hemisphere.
‘‘What this says is that the Cuban government has no respect for the free and peaceful expression of one’s political or religious beliefs,’’ Eric Olson, Amnesty’s Americas advocacy director, said in a telephone interview.
The 75 convictions bring to 90 the number of ‘‘prisoners of conscience’’ currently in Cuban jails. Various other organizations inside and outside the island place the number of political prisoners there at more than 300.
Amnesty’s report, coming on the heels of a round of condemnation from governments and organizations worldwide, reinforces the view of Cuba as a pariah in the realm of human rights. Few, if any, actions taken by Fidel Castro’s government in the last 40 years have drawn such harsh criticism.
Amnesty also released detailed biographies of all 75 political prisoners—the first time an international human rights group has done so.
The organization defines ‘‘prisoners of conscience’’ as people detained anywhere for their beliefs or because of their ethnic origin, gender, color, language, sexual orientation, national or social origin, or economic, birth or other status, provided they have not used or advocated violence.
The only other country in the Americas with prisoners of conscience is Peru, with at least 20 currently in jail, according to Amnesty. Only 34 countries in the world have confirmed or possible prisoners of conscience, including Congo, China and Jordan. The number of prisoners in those countries was not available Monday.
In the report Cuba: Essential measures? Human rights crackdown in the name of security, Amnesty dismissed Cuba’s assertion that the government opponents were a national security threat.
According to a review of legal documents for many of the 75 prisoners, Amnesty found that in several cases the simple act of giving interviews to U.S.-based media or sending information to Amnesty and other international organizations was used to convict the dissidents, the report said.
All the dissidents arrested in the sweep have promoted peaceful changes in Cuba. They included well-known longtime activists such as Martha Beatriz Roque, an economist and the sole female in the group; Raúl Rivero, a renowned poet and writer, and Hector Palacios, an opposition political party leader. Many were involved with a citizens initiative known as the Varela Project, which calls for sweeping democratic reforms.
The 75 come from a variety of educational backgrounds and different age groups. They are engineers, physicists, teachers and physicians, although many worked as independent journalists.
Jose Luis García Paneque, 38, is typical. Described by the Amnesty report as a plastic surgeon by training, from Las Tunas, he is a director of the independent news agency Libertad and a member of the Journalists’ Society, both unofficial groups. García, sentenced to 24 years, also was a Varela Project activist and directed a private library, the Amnesty report says.
The oldest of the 75 newly declared prisoners of conscience, Carmelo Agustín Díaz Fernández, 65, is president of the unofficial Independent Union Press Agency and belongs to the Christian Cuban Workers Union. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Another older dissident is Oscar Manuel Espinosa Chepe, 62, who, according to Cuban authorities quoted by Amnesty International, was accused of ‘‘having a regular program on Radio Martí called, Talking With Chepe, where he gave distorted information on the Cuban economy.’’ He suffers from a variety of chronic illnesses and is serving a 20-year sentence.
CONCERN FOR HEALTH
The State Department on Monday expressed concern for the failing health of Espinosa Chepe and four other imprisoned dissidents—Rivero, Beatriz Roque, Jorge Olivera and Roberto de Miranda—and demanded that they receive medical attention.
The youngest of the prisoners is Lester González Penton, 26, a member of the Reason, Truth and Freedom Human Rights Movement and a delegate to the Cuban Confederation of Democratic Workers, in Santa Clara.
The report also criticizes a recent crackdown on Cuba’s opposition, and the speedy closed-door trials and firing-squad executions of three men convicted of trying to hijack a passenger ferry across the Florida Straits.
‘‘Amnesty International condemns the upswing in serious human rights violations as outrageous and calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience,’’ Dr. William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement.
The report called on Cuba to halt all executions and resume its three-year ‘‘de facto’’ moratorium on the death penalty.
Amnesty also criticized the U.S. embargo against Cuba and called on the United States to review its policy, stating that it has not helped improve human rights on the island and in some cases has hurt it.
‘‘We recognize that the embargo is an ineffective mechanism for promoting human rights, and the organization is gravely concerned that in some situations it has contributed to abuses,’’ Schulz stated.
The 75 dissidents were sentenced to long prison terms in April following summary trials in which they were accused of being mercenaries working with U.S. diplomats in Havana to undermine Castro’s government. The United States and the dissidents have denied the accusations.
The Cuban government has repeatedly defended the crackdown, saying it was a national security issue. Castro also has said the executions of the three hijackers were justified and were carried out to end a string of armed hijackings. The hijackings, Castro has said, were provoked by U.S. policy that allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to remain here.