Cuban and Haitian migrants detained in the Bahamas told The Herald that they have been beaten and otherwise mistreated.
BY JOE MOZINGO | Miami Herald
NASSAU, Bahamas - In a place where tourists come to lounge on the beach and sip rum drinks, illegal Cuban and Haitian migrants in a government detention center claim that they are regularly beaten while handcuffed, subjected to extortion and denied clean water and medical treatment.
‘‘They beat us like dogs,’’ said Alexi Leon Ortuota, a 33-year-old Cuban detainee. ``They don’t give us soap or drinking water. They give us nothing.’‘
The allegations by inmates during a Herald visit to the Carmichael Detention Centre were backed by a Jamaican and a Briton recently held there. And Amnesty International has reported detainee complaints that guards beat them, forced several to eat off the ground, raped two women and subjected two Cuban men to mock executions.
The situation reached a flash point last month, when a showdown between Cuban migrants and soldiers who guard the camp ended with the detainees being sprayed with rubber bullets and a barrack burned down. A government statement said 16 detainees and guards were injured.
More than 40 Cubans involved in the melee were transferred to Nassau’s Fox Hill criminal prison, accused of setting fire to the barrack. Twenty-two of them remain there but are yet to see a lawyer or speak to their families.
While many details of the Dec. 9 incident are in dispute, it drew the wrath of Cuban exile groups in Miami and further complaints from Amnesty International.
The Herald was granted rare approval to visit both the Carmichael and Fox Hill facilities. Although government officials escorted the reporter, they understood neither Spanish nor Haitian Creole, and the detainees spoke openly about the alleged abuses.
‘‘We are not criminals,’’ David Mart�nez Perez, 37, said in an interview in his cell at Fox Hill, where six inmates share one cell with four beds. ``We didn’t commit a crime. We are immigrants. This is inhuman.’‘
The highly charged situation in this relatively affluent and peaceful former British colony reflects a growing fear and resentment that the islands’ 300,000 residents will be overrun by illegal migrants.
With two giant, restless populations on its southern flank—7.6 million in Haiti, 11.3 million in Cuba—the Bahamas have become coral stepping stones to South Florida. Last year alone, 4,642 illegal migrants were interdicted in its vast territorial waters.
Bahamian officials deny allegations of widespread abuse.
‘‘We are accommodating unwelcome strangers,’’ said Immigration Minister Vincent Peet. ``We try to be as humane as we can. . . . Can there be sensitivity training? Yes.’‘
The Carmichael Detention Centre is operated as a temporary holding camp for illegal migrants while any potential requests for political asylum are processed. The four barracks sit in a shadeless field surrounded by razor wire and guard towers.
The vast majority of detainees are Haitians, who are normally deported just days after their arrival. Cubans can languish for months as the Bahamian and Cuban governments process their claims of political asylum. Most are ultimately sent back to Cuba.
An Amnesty International report in 2003 accused Bahamian authorities of trying ``to deter further illegal migration by maintaining miserable conditions at the Centre.’‘
The report alleged that the detainees were beaten and denied access to doctors and clean water, and noted ‘allegations of the sexual abuse of female detainees, including male staff watching women naked, two allegations of rape and allegations of `consensual’ sexual conduct between female detainees and male guards.’‘
Under pressure, the Bahamian government launched an inquiry. Its findings, released Dec. 8: no evidence of mistreatment.
The next day, tensions snapped. Two Cubans and a Dominican detainee jumped the fences and escaped. Then, the government claims, Cubans locked themselves in their barrack and set it on fire. The officers fired rubber bullets at the detainees to gain control.
The Cuban prisoners vehemently deny that they provoked it. ‘‘We are not crazy,’’ Omar Gonzalez, 39, told The Herald at Fox Hill. ``We are not going to light a fire where we are trapped.’‘
They said they were staging a peaceful hunger strike when soldiers stormed in, firing rubber bullets. The Cubans say that they used a foam mattress to fend off the bullets, and that the shooting was so intense that the foam caught fire.
They were taken to Fox Hill, where conditions in their wing are cramped and overcrowded, and they are allowed outside for only a half-hour four times a week. Most have nothing to read, some have to sleep on the floor, and some cells have no water or working toilets. In those cells, they ask other prisoners to pour toilet water into rubber gloves and slide them down the hall.
At Carmichael, the living conditions depend on the number of detainees, which can swing dramatically. With an official capacity of 500 detainees, the facility has held as many as 700 before, immigration officials say. Only 153 people were there on the day of The Herald visit.
Officials would let a reporter into only one of the barracks, the women’s, which had far fewer people than the others.
Inside, a group of Haitian women lingered in silence on the iron bed frames. A toddler ran around, toting a balloon made of a surgical glove.
Several women said they had left Haiti on a boat after flooding from Hurricane Jeanne devastated their city, Gonaives. The surge of water in September killed almost 3,000 people.
‘‘I lost all my family members,’’ said Navera Gedela St. Val, 30. ``I’m the only surviving member of my family. I had to look for a better life.’‘
Outside, men crowded against the fence to talk. Several of them said they were members of a Cuban opposition group known as November 30.
Some had been at Carmichael for as long as 10 months. They complained of beatings, poor food, rancid bathrooms, sleeping on the floor, no medical treatment.
‘‘I have asthma,’’ one man said. ``I need an inhaler, but they won’t give it to me.’‘
The complaints about Carmichael were bolstered by two recently released detainees.
Omar Jones, 24, a Jamaican and father of three, said he landed in Carmichael on Dec. 11 for not having up-to-date immigration papers. He has lived in the Bahamas for most of his life and is married to a member of the defense force.
One day at the center, Jones said, a guard accused him of trying to jump the fence. He was cuffed and taken into a side building, thrown to the floor and stomped and kicked until his eye swelled shut.
‘He said, `You Jamaicans think you all so bad,’ ‘’ Jones recounted.
A British man, David Bright, related a similar story. He said he was handcuffed and beaten in the same building last year after he mouthed off to a guard who was trying to extort money for the use of his cellphone, an allegedly common scheme.
Bright said he is still haunted by the ‘‘degradation, humiliation and beatings’’ at the center.
‘‘To take a beating for no reason is like having your soul ripped away,’’ he said.