a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
In contrast with 2018, there were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
There were confirmed reports of long-term disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. There were multiple reports of detained activists whose whereabouts were unknown for days or weeks because the government did not register these detentions; many detentions occurred in unregistered sites. For example, authorities detained UNPACU leader Jose Daniel Ferrer several times during the year. He was often held for several days at a time incommunicado or without being charged in court. Although uniformed security officials were present for his arrest, authorities denied having him in their custody (see also sections 1.d. and 2.d.). On October 1, police detained him for almost six weeks before allowing his family to see him and did not announce charges against him until November 15, 45 days after his disappearance. In the interim, authorities rejected writs of habeas corpus filed by his wife. As of December, Jose Daniel Ferrer remained in custody.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
There were reports that members of the security forces intimidated and physically assaulted human rights and prodemocracy advocates, political dissidents, and other detainees and prisoners during detention and imprisonment, and that they did so with impunity. Some detainees and prisoners also endured physical abuse by prison officials or by other inmates with the acquiescence of guards.
There were reports police assaulted detainees or were complicit in public harassment of and physical assaults on peaceful demonstrators (see section 2.b.). For example, in August several videos showed police attacking with police dogs and truncheons persons assembled for carnivals, despite receiving little resistance. Police also were recorded severely beating a private taxi driver in a separate August incident as part of a campaign against persons working for themselves.
On August 12, authorities prevented evangelical Christian activist Adrian del Sol from departing the country for a workshop of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a religious freedom organization, as part of a broader policy of arbitrarily preventing certain individuals from leaving the country (see section 2.d.). In response, Adrian’s father Guillermo del Sol–an activist himself–started a hunger strike against the policy on August 12. On September 20, on the 40th day of his hunger strike, del Sol was admitted to Arnaldo Milian Castro Provincial State University Hospital for medical treatment and received intravenous nutrients and other care for several hours. On September 21, a state doctor pronounced him in perfect health, despite his being in obviously ill health and suffering from several chronic conditions exacerbated by his hunger strike. Police agents dragged the emaciated del Sol to a van from the Brigada Especial, a Ministry of Interior unit responsible for repressing dissidents. The van took him to his home, which was surrounded by police. According to del Sol, one of the security agents told him the order to remove him from the hospital came from the very top: “General Raul Castro gave us the order to take you to die in your home, and you will die like the anticommunist dog that you are.” Several activists who attempted to visit him were arrested and fined, and the family’s telephones were confiscated.
When authorities did allow Nelva Ismarays Ortega Tamayo, the wife of Jose Daniel Ferrer (see section 1.b.), to visit him in prison, she found him emaciated with signs of repeated physical torture. He was reportedly unable to lift his arms and recounted daily psychological trauma inflicted at the instruction of his jailers.
State security officials frequently deployed to countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua, where they trained and supported other organizations in their use of repressive tactics and human rights abuses, and sometimes participated in them directly. For instance, Cubans were instrumental in transforming Venezuela’s Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) from a small organization focused on external threats to a much larger organization focused on surveilling the Venezuelan armed forces in order to suppress dissent and ensure loyalty to the Maduro regime. A July 5 UN report accused the DGCIM of torture, and many former prisoners said that Cubans, identified by their distinctive accents, supervised as DGCIM personnel tortured them.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions continued to be harsh and life threatening. Prisons were overcrowded, and facilities, sanitation, and medical care were deficient. There were reports that prison officials assaulted prisoners.
Physical Conditions: The government provided no information regarding the number, location, or capacity of detention centers, including prisons, work camps, and other kinds of detention facilities.
Prison and detention cells reportedly lacked adequate water, sanitation, light, ventilation, and temperature control. Although the government provided some food and medical care, many prisoners relied on family for food and other basic supplies. Potable water was often unavailable. Prison cells were overcrowded. Women reported lack of access to feminine hygiene products and inadequate prenatal care.
Prisoners, family members, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported inadequate health care, which led to or aggravated multiple maladies. Prisoners also reported outbreaks of dengue fever, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and cholera. There were reports of prisoner deaths from heart attacks, asthma, HIV/AIDS, and other chronic medical conditions as well as from suicide.
Political prisoners were held jointly with the general prison population. Political prisoners who refused to wear standard prison uniforms were denied certain privileges, such as access to prison libraries, reductions in the severity of their sentence, or being transferred from a maximum-security to a medium-security prison.
There are credible reports that prison officials assaulted inmates. On June 11, prisoner of conscience Josiel Guia Piloto, a member of the Republican Party of Cuba, suffered a collapsed lung after being beaten by prison guards, according to his mother. Political prisoners also reported that fellow inmates, acting on orders from or with the permission of prison authorities, threatened, beat, intimidated, and harassed them.
Prisoners reported solitary confinement was a common punishment for failure to comply with prison regulations, and some prisoners were isolated for months at a time. Some prisoners were held incommunicado, without being able to contact friends or family until they were released.
The government subjected prisoners who criticized the government or engaged in hunger strikes and other forms of protest to extended solitary confinement, assaults, restrictions on family visits, and denial of medical care.
Administration: Authorities did not conduct investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment. Prisoners reported government officials refused to accept complaints or failed to respond to complaints.
Prisoners and pretrial detainees had access to visitors, although several political prisoners’ relatives reported prison officials arbitrarily canceled scheduled visits or denied visits altogether.
Authorities allowed prisoners to practice their religion, but there were isolated reports authorities did not inform inmates of their right to access religious services, delayed months before responding to such requests, and limited visits by religious groups to a maximum of two or three times per year.
Independent Monitoring: The government did not permit monitoring of prison conditions by independent international or domestic human rights groups and did not permit access to detainees by international humanitarian organizations. Although the government pledged in previous years to allow a visit by the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment, no visit occurred during the year.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government did not observe these requirements. Arbitrary arrests and short-term detentions increased, becoming a routine government method for controlling independent public expression and political activity. Activists were frequently arbitrarily detained without being informed of any charges against them and often denied the ability to communicate with their relatives immediately or at all.
The law provides that police officials furnish suspects a signed “report of detention,” noting the basis, date, and location of any detention in a police facility and a registry of personal items seized during a police search, but authorities routinely ignored this requirement. Police routinely stopped and questioned citizens, requested identification, and carried out search-and-seizure operations. Police used laws against public disorder, contempt, lack of respect, aggression, and failure to pay minimal or arbitrary fines as ways to detain, threaten, and arrest civil society activists. Police officials routinely conducted short-term detentions, at times assaulting detainees.
Police and security officials continued to use short-term and sometimes violent detentions to prevent independent political activity or free assembly. Such detentions generally lasted from several hours to several days.
The law allows for “preventive detention” for up to four years of individuals not charged with an actual crime, based on a subjective determination of “precriminal dangerousness,” which is defined as the “special proclivity of a person to commit crimes, demonstrated by conduct in manifest contradiction of socialist norms.” Mostly used as a tool to control “antisocial” behaviors, such as substance abuse or prostitution, authorities also used such detention to silence peaceful political opponents. Multiple domestic human rights organizations, including the Spain-based NGO Cuban Prisoners’ Defenders, published lists of persons they considered political prisoners; individuals appearing on these lists remained imprisoned under the “precriminal dangerousness” provision of the law.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Under criminal procedures, police have 24 hours after an arrest to present a criminal complaint to an investigative police official. Investigative police have 72 hours to investigate and prepare a report for the prosecutor, who in turn has 72 hours to recommend to the appropriate court whether to open a criminal investigation.
Within the initial 168-hour detention period, detainees must be informed of the basis for the arrest and criminal investigation and have access to legal representation. Those charged may be released on bail, placed in home detention, or held in continued investigative detention. Once the accused has an attorney, the defense has five days to respond to the prosecution’s charges, after which a court date usually is set. Prosecutors may demand summary trials “in extraordinary circumstances” and in cases involving crimes against state security.
There were reports that defendants met with their attorneys for the first time only minutes before their trials and were not informed of the basis for their arrest within the required 168-hour period.
Reports suggested bail was available, although typically not granted to those arrested for political activities. Time in detention before trial counted toward time served if convicted.
Detainees may be interrogated at any time during detention and have no right to request the presence of counsel during interrogation. Detainees have the right to remain silent, but officials do not have a legal obligation to inform them of that right. Although the law prohibits the use of coercion during investigative interrogations, police and security forces at times relied on aggressive and physically abusive tactics, threats, and harassment during questioning. Detainees reported officers intimidated them with threats of long-term detention, loss of child-custody rights, denial of permission to depart the country, and other punishments.
By law, investigators must complete criminal investigations within 60 days. Prosecutors may grant investigators two 60-day extensions upon request, for a total of 180 days of investigative time. The supervising court may waive this deadline in “extraordinary circumstances” and upon special request by the prosecutor. In that instance no additional legal requirement exists to complete an investigation and file criminal charges, and authorities may detain a person without charge indefinitely.
Arbitrary Arrest: Officials often disregarded legal procedures governing arrest, detaining suspects longer than the legally mandated period without informing them of the nature of the arrest, allowing them to contact family members, or affording them legal counsel. Police and security officials continued to use short-term and sometimes violent detentions to prevent independent political activity or free assembly. Such detentions generally lasted from several hours to several days. In the month of August alone, the NGO Cuban Human Rights Observatory reported at least 267 arbitrary detentions, more than half of whom were members of the human rights organization Damas de Blanco (Women in White). Observers noted that the detentions increased after August.
Throughout the year the leader of Damas de Blanco, Berta de los Angeles Soler Fernandez, was arrested every single Sunday she tried to exit her house to protest. She and other Damas de Blanco members were frequently physically abused while in police custody, as shown by videos of their arrests. After being taken into custody, they were typically fined and released. The fines frequently lacked information about what portion of law formed the basis for the fine or the name of the official responsible for fining them, making the fines difficult to contest in court. Sometimes the fines formed the basis for restricting persons from leaving the country (see section 2.d., Freedom of Movement).
Pretrial Detention: The government held detainees for months or years in investigative detention, in both political and nonpolitical cases. In nonpolitical cases delays were often due to bureaucratic inefficiencies and a lack of checks on police.
On August 27, authorities detained UNPACU leader Jose Daniel Ferrer in connection with a fabricated murder case from 2018. He was previously detained in August 2018 in Santiago de Cuba for 12 days and charged with attempted murder following a car accident in which he hit and injured an official in Palmarito del Cauto. There were reports the official intentionally jumped in front of the vehicle Ferrer was driving, resulting in minor injuries to the official. Despite reported coercion of witnesses, police could not obtain corroborating evidence against Ferrer, and the prosecution was forced eventually to release him. Police, however, continued to use the case as justification for detaining him.
In connection with a planned march on September 8, several UNPACU activists were arbitrarily detained on September 7. On September 8, immediately after leaving his house with several supporters, Ferrer and other supporters were arrested (see section 2.b. for more information). On October 1, he was arrested again, this time on different charges that he was involved in a physical assault of an UNPACU member. The charges were likely fabricated, due to testimony from multiple individuals that the alleged victim left UNPACU headquarters unharmed and testimony from the alleged victim’s wife that the injuries were sustained in a motorcycle accident. A separate activist said she was threatened with prison if she did not sign a false statement implicating Ferrer in the alleged crime.
Ferrer was held incommunicado for 72 hours before authorities acknowledged he was in custody, and they denied his wife access to him. Several days later, she was finally allowed access to him and received permission to send him a change of clothes, but not medication to tend to his chronic medical condition. On October 18, after not seeing him for more than two weeks, she filed a writ of habeas corpus stating Ferrer’s family did not know his whereabouts or if he was still alive, and that they had not been informed of charges filed against him or been given the opportunity to provide a lawyer to represent him. The court ruled against the petition, claiming that charges were brought on October 3 and formally filed October 7, without stating his location or the charges against him.
On October 25, still without access to her husband for herself or her lawyers, and still without knowing the public charges, Ferrer’s wife and his three minor children demonstrated against her husband’s mistreatment in a public park in Santiago de Cuba; security officials arrested all individuals. On November 7, she was allowed a five-minute supervised visit with him–the first proof she had received in more than one month that Ferrer was still alive. He described extremely punishing treatment he received at the hands of his jailers, who chained him hand and feet, offered him only spoiled food and foul water, and held him with a known violent criminal who said he was offered privileges in exchange for beating Ferrer (which he did regularly).
Prison officials refused to consider pleas from Ferrer’s wife to consider his failing health or accept medicine she brought to the prison for him, and they banned her from further visits to the facility. On November 15, the government provided her a copy of the charges filed against Ferrer on October 7. As of December 3, Ferrer still had not received access to a lawyer, and a trial date had not been set.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
While the constitution recognizes the independence of the judiciary, the judiciary is directly subordinate to the National Assembly and the CCP, which may remove or appoint judges at any time. Political considerations thoroughly dominated the judiciary, and there was no separation of powers between the judicial system, the CCP, and the Council of State.
Civilian courts exist at the municipal, provincial, and national levels. Special tribunals convene behind closed doors for political (“counterrevolutionary”) cases and other cases deemed “sensitive to state security.” The government’s practice was to deny admission to observers to trial on an arbitrary basis. Military tribunals may also have jurisdiction over civilians if any of the defendants are active or former members of the military, police, or other law enforcement agency.
The law provides for the right to a public trial, but politically motivated trials were at times held in secret, with authorities citing exceptions for crimes involving “state security” or “extraordinary circumstances.” Many cases concluded quickly and were closed to the press.
Due process rights apply equally to all citizens as well as foreigners, but courts regularly failed to protect or observe these rights. The law presumes defendants to be innocent until proven guilty, but authorities often ignored this, placing the burden on defendants to prove innocence. The law provides criminal defendants the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt.
The law requires that defendants be represented by an attorney, at public expense if necessary. Privately hired attorneys were often reluctant to defend individuals charged with political crimes or associated with human rights cases. Defendants’ attorneys may cross-examine government witnesses and present witnesses and evidence. Only state attorneys are licensed to practice in criminal courts.
Criteria for admitting evidence were arbitrary and discriminatory. According to reports, prosecutors routinely introduced irrelevant or unreliable evidence to prove intent or testimony about the revolutionary credentials of a defendant.
Defense attorneys have the right to review the investigation files of a defendant unless the charges involve “crimes against the security of the state.” In these cases defense attorneys were not allowed access until charges were filed. Many detainees, especially political detainees, reported their attorneys had difficulties accessing case files due to administrative obstacles. Interpretation was sometimes provided during trials for non-Spanish speakers, but the government claimed limited resources prevented interpreters from always being available.
On August 7, a provincial court sentenced journalist Roberto de Jesus Quinones Haces to one year in prison after allowing him only 30 minutes to review the charges of “resistance and disobedience” and prepare a defense without being provided access to a lawyer. Quinones had photographs and other evidence that he was beaten during his arrest, but the court refused to allow him to present this material in his defense. During his appeal the court denied his right to call witnesses. The court then substituted the original complainant for a different accuser (for additional information on Quinones’ cases, see section 2.a.).
In trials where defendants are charged with “precriminal dangerousness” (see section 1.d.), the state must show only that the defendant has “proclivity” for crime, so an actual criminal act need not have occurred. Penalties may be up to four years in prison. Authorities normally applied this provision to prostitutes, alcoholics, young persons who refused to report to work centers, repeat offenders of laws restricting change of domicile, and political activists who participated in public protests.
The law recognizes the right of appeal in municipal courts but limits it in provincial courts to cases involving lengthy prison terms or the death penalty.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The government continued to hold political prisoners and detainees but denied it did so and refused access to its prisons and detention centers by international humanitarian organizations and the United Nations.
The Spain-based NGO Cuban Prisoners Defenders estimated there were 125 convicted political prisoners serving sentences as of September 1, while other credible groups put the number slightly higher. The lack of governmental transparency, along with systemic violations of due process rights, obfuscated the true nature of criminal charges, investigations, and prosecutions, allowing government authorities to prosecute and sentence peaceful human rights activists for criminal violations or “precriminal dangerousness.” The government used the designation of “counterrevolutionary” for inmates deemed to be political opposition, but it did not publicize those numbers. The government closely monitored organizations tracking political prisoner populations, and the organizations often faced harassment from state authorities.
Political prisoners reported the government held them in isolation for extended periods. They did not receive the same protections as other prisoners or detainees. The government also frequently denied political prisoners access to home visits, prison classes, telephone calls, and, on occasion, family visits.
On July 16, Elias Perez Bocourt was released from custody after spending more than 27 years in prison for “piracy” due to his involvement in an attempt to escape the country when he was 22 years old. Despite having a mild mental disability, he was given a full sentence and initially incarcerated in Camaguey special prison, where he spent eight years in solitary confinement. According to credible media sources, during that time he was beaten once a week by his jailers, who sometimes sprayed his small cell with mace and encouraged other inmates to defecate into his cell. Later, when he was put in a communal cell, he was frequently abused, including raped, by other prisoners with the complicity of the prison staff. For the entire 27 years of his confinement, guards beat him every year on the anniversary of his attempt to escape Cuba.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
It is possible to seek judicial remedies through civil courts for violations of administrative determinations, but independent legal experts noted general procedural and bureaucratic inefficiencies often delayed or undermined the enforcement of administrative determinations and civil court orders. Civil courts, like all other courts in the country, lacked independence and impartiality as well as effective procedural guarantees. No courts allowed claimants to bring lawsuits seeking remedies for human rights violations.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution provides for the protection of citizens’ privacy rights in their homes and correspondence, and police are required by law to have a warrant signed by a prosecutor or magistrate before entering or conducting a search. Officials, however, did not respect these protections. Reportedly government officials routinely and systematically monitored correspondence and communications between citizens, tracked their movements, and entered homes without legal authority and with impunity.
On November 18, the Council of State approved amendments to the criminal code legalizing covert techniques to obtain information that could be used as evidence in a criminal trial without a judge’s approval or supervision. The techniques included information gathering by undercover officers, voice recording, location monitoring, filming, communications intercepts, and surreptitious access to computer systems. The government already routinely and widely employed these procedures before they became officially legal.
Security forces conducted arbitrary stops and searches, especially in urban areas and at government-controlled checkpoints at the entrances to provinces and municipalities. Authorities used dubious pretenses to enter residences where they knew activists were meeting, such as “random” inspections of utilities or spurious reports of a disturbance. Authorities also used legitimate reasons to access residences, such as to fumigate homes as part of a campaign to eliminate disease-carrying mosquitoes, as a pretext for illegal searches.
The Ministry of Interior employed a system of informants and neighborhood committees, known as “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution,” to monitor government opponents and report on their activities. Agents from the ministry’s General Directorate for State Security subjected foreign journalists, visiting foreign officials and diplomats, academics, and businesspersons to frequent surveillance, including electronic surveillance.
The CCP is the only legally recognized political party, and the government actively suppressed attempts to form other parties (see section 3). The government encouraged mass political mobilization and favored citizens who actively participated (see section 2.b.).
Family members of government employees who left international work missions or similar activities (such as medical missions, athletic competitions, and research presentations) without official permission at times faced government harassment or loss of employment, access to education, or other public benefits. Family members of human rights defenders, including their minor children, reportedly suffered reprisals related to the activities of their relatives. These reprisals included reduced salaries and termination of employment, denial of acceptance into university, expulsion from university, and other forms of harassment.