a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous confirmed reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
On July 12, a police officer shot and killed Diubis Laurencio Tejeda, an unarmed Afro-Cuban man in the Havana neighborhood of Guinera. The state-run Cubadebate website acknowledged the death of the 36-year-old man but characterized Tejeda as a criminal with a record of contempt, theft, and disorderly conduct. The government further reported that organized groups of criminals had tried to attack the local police station, vandalized homes, set fires, and attacked agents and civilians with knives, rocks, and blunt weapons. The independent media outlet Diario de Cuba obtained testimony from witnesses and acquired documents that contradicted the official statement. A prosecutor declared the police officer was acting in self-defense against direct aggression, and the officer was exonerated of all charges.
On November 1, oncologist Carlos Leonardo Vazquez Gonzalez, also known as “agent Fernando,” admitted on state television to working as an informant for State Security for 25 years. Following Vazquez’ confession, multiple sources came forward and credibly accused him of intentionally denying medical care to dissidents. Friends and relatives of deceased activist Laura Pollan and independent journalists accused Vazquez and other doctors of playing a role in her 2011 death and falsifying the medical certificate of death.
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 of which occurred at unregistered sites.
The unprecedented and spontaneous protests that erupted on July 11 were met with systemic and violent repression. On July 14, the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances submitted a request for urgent government action regarding the alleged enforced disappearance of 187 persons in the previous few days. The committee gave the government a deadline of August 24 to respond to the inquiry, but the government did not respond.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
There were recurring reports that members of the security forces and their agents harassed, intimidated, and physically assaulted human rights and prodemocracy advocates, political dissidents, and peaceful demonstrators, and that they did so with impunity. Some detainees and prisoners endured physical and sexual abuse by prison officials or other inmates at the instigation of guards. Although the law prohibits coercion during investigative interrogations, police and security forces at times used 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.
On July 11, police violently arrested Gabriela Zequeira Hernandez, a 17-year-old who happened upon the protests while walking home from the hairdresser. Upon her admission to Cien y Alabo Prison where she was held 10 days incommunicado, authorities forced her to remove her clothes and put a finger in her vagina to verify she was concealing nothing. Officers kept interrupting her attempts to sleep, and one officer made sexual taunts and threatened her with sexual violence. She was sentenced to eight months’ house arrest for “public disorder,” for participating in the demonstrations.
On July 12, uniformed policemen arrested and beat Maria Cristina Garrido Rodriguez and her sister Angelica Garrido Rodriguez for participating in the July 11 protests in Quivican. Angelica passed out three times from the beatings. They transferred the sisters to a police station, where Maria Cristina received another beating. That afternoon police transferred them to the “del Sida” prison located in San Jose de las Lajas, where a female guard beat Maria Cristina. Authorities then put her in a cell so small she could not sit or lie down, and she began to experience severe headaches. Later they repeatedly forced her to shout “Long Live Fidel!” Authorities accused both sisters of public disorder, resistance, spreading an epidemic, attacks, and being protest organizers, despite having no evidence against them.
Amid the worst wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country, prisoners reported being crowded into communal cells with only two cups to share for water and then being charged with “propagating an epidemic” for having participated in a protest. Prisoners reported being told they would not be released until the wounds from their beatings at the hands of police were healed. Others were told the local head of the Communist Party’s Comites de Defensa de la Revolucion (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, local groups used for political surveillance) would be notified when they were released.
State security officials frequently deployed to countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua, where they trained and supported other organizations in the use of repressive tactics and human rights abuses and sometimes participated in the abuses directly. Cuban security force members embedded in the Maduro regime’s security and intelligence services in Venezuela were instrumental in transforming Venezuela’s Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) into a large organization focused on surveilling Venezuelans and suppressing dissent. UN reports accused the DGCIM of torture, and many former Venezuelan prisoners said that Cubans, identified by their distinctive accents, supervised while DGCIM personnel tortured prisoners.
Impunity was pervasive. There were no known cases of prosecution of government officials for any human rights abuses, including torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening. There were credible reports of assault by prison officials, overcrowding, and deficiencies in facilities, sanitation, and medical care.
The government did not publish official statistics on its prisons or allow international monitors to inspect them. The government provided no information regarding the number, location, or capacity of detention centers, including prisons, work camps, and other kinds of detention facilities. The Spain-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Cuban Prisoners Defenders estimated that the government had more than 200 such facilities.
Physical Conditions: 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 their families 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. Prison officials also arbitrarily denied friends, family, and diplomatic personnel visitor access to prisoners, citing COVID-19 as their rationale.
Dissident artist Hamlet Lavastida said he shared a 10-foot by 2.5-foot cell with three other prisoners. A white light remained on at all hours, while government propaganda played constantly and loudly nearby. While prisoners were supposed to go outside daily for 10-minute intervals, prison authorities permitted Lavastida to go outside only five times during his three-month incarceration.
Prisoners, family members, and NGOs reported inadequate health care in prisons, which led to or aggravated multiple maladies. Prisoners reported outbreaks of dengue fever, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and cholera. Uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreaks ravaged several detention facilities. There were reports of prisoner deaths following official indifference to treatable medical conditions such as asthma, HIV, AIDS, and other chronic medical conditions as well as suicide. Authorities rarely if ever supplied medicine. Radio Marti reported that prison officials in Cienfuegos denied medical assistance to Carlos Samir Cardenas Cartalla, the Cuban Union (UNPACU) political group Camaguey coordinator.
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 family visits, access to prison libraries, reductions in the severity of their sentence, or transfer from a maximum-security to a medium-security prison.
There were credible reports that prison officials assaulted inmates. 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, repeated interrogations, assaults, restrictions on family visits, and denial of medical care.
Administration: Authorities did not investigate credible allegations of mistreatment. Prisoners reported government officials refused to accept or respond to complaints.
Some prisoners and pretrial detainees had access to visitors, although it was not unusual for political prisoners’ relatives to report that prison officials arbitrarily canceled scheduled visits or denied visits altogether. This was particularly true for persons incarcerated following the July 11 protests.
Independent Monitoring: The government did not permit independent international or domestic human rights groups to monitor prison conditions, and it denied 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. Although the 2019 constitution adds explicit protections of freedom and human rights, including habeas corpus, authorities did not observe them, nor did the courts enforce them.
The government broadened arbitrary arrest powers under the pretext of controlling the COVID-19 pandemic. A May 2020 resolution permits security forces to carry out active and systematic screening of the entire population, prioritizing suspected cases and populations at risk. Travel restrictions barring persons from leaving their homes except in cases of emergency made it harder for activists and political dissidents to communicate.
The law requires that police 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. Authorities routinely ignored this requirement. Police routinely stopped and questioned citizens, requested identification, and carried out search-and-seizure operations directed at known activists. Police used legal provisions 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 routinely conducted short-term detentions to interfere with individuals’ rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, and at times assaulted detainees.
Police and security officials used short-term and sometimes violent detentions to prevent independent political activity and 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 detentions to silence peaceful political opponents. Several of the more than 100 individuals considered to be political prisoners by domestic and international human rights organizations were imprisoned under the “precriminal dangerousness” provision of the law.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
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, by law 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. After the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread in early 2020, the Ministry of Justice regularly invoked “extraordinary circumstances” to conduct summary trials.
Reports suggested bail was available, although bail was typically not granted to persons arrested for political activities. Time in detention before trial may be 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.
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 the case of the “extraordinary circumstances” waiver, no additional legal requirement exists to complete an investigation and file criminal charges, and therefore authorities may detain a person without charge indefinitely.
Officials often disregarded legal procedures governing arrest. Following the July protests, they detained suspects longer than the legally mandated period without informing them of the nature of the arrest, without allowing them to contact family members, and without making legal counsel available to them. Family members of convicted protesters and protesters released pending trial or appeal reported that none of those released was provided with copies of the charges filed against them or of the evidence against them.
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. In the case of summary trials for persons accused of “propagating an epidemic” for allegedly violating COVID-19 restrictions, accused persons were tried and sentenced without representation from legal counsel or the opportunity to present any defense.
Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrests and short-term detentions increased and became a routine government method for controlling independent public expression and political activity. The government frequently detained activists arbitrarily without informing them of any charges against them and often denied them the ability to communicate with their relatives. Such detentions generally lasted from several hours to several days. After being taken into custody, these suspects were typically fined and released. The record of the fines frequently lacked information about the law that was broken or the name of the official responsible for the fine, making the fines difficult to contest in court. At times fines formed the basis for preventing persons from leaving the country.
As a result of the July 11 protests, the number of arbitrary arrests rose steeply, with 5,000 to 8,000 arrests and detentions, according to estimates by the NGO Cuban Prisoners Defenders. The NGO Justicia 11J estimated 710 remained in detention as of December. The regime used expansively a section of the penal code that allows the government to sentence persons to one to four years in prison for noncriminal acts that are considered antisocial.
Police arrested and imprisoned 18-year-old Marco Antonio Pintules Marrero during the July 11 protests in Holguin and did not allow his mother to see him for more than 46 days, even after he contracted COVID-19 and was transferred to a prison. His mother reported authorities beat him and coerced him into saying he had thrown stones at a Special Brigades car. Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported police arrested and imprisoned Pastor Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo during the July 11 protests. Rosales Fajardo was held for more than one month in Versalles Prison before being transferred to Boniato Maximum Security Prison. Guards at Versalles beat him and urinated on him; the beating caused him to lose a tooth. Following five months in detention, he was scheduled to stand trial on December 21. He faced a possible sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment.
Pretrial Detention: The government held some 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. The percentage of prisoners and detainees in pretrial detention was unknown.
As of December, Luis Robles Elizastigui spent more than one year in pretrial detention, his trial postponed indefinitely. Police arrested him in December 2020, when he carried out a solitary, peaceful protest in Havana to request that the government release imprisoned rapper Denis Solis. The Prosecutor’s Office requested a sentence of six years for the alleged crimes of “disobedience” and “enemy propaganda.” On October 11, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions found that Robles’ detention resulted directly from his peaceful protest and called for his release. Solis, for whom Robles protested, was released from prison in July after serving his full sentence.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detainees cannot challenge the lawfulness of their detention in court. Summary trial procedures do not allow defendants to contest the facts of the case as presented by the state, only why they committed the alleged offense.
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 Cuban Communist Party (PCC), 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 PCC, 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.” Military tribunals may have jurisdiction over civilians if any of the defendants are active or former members of the military, police, or another law enforcement agency or if they are civilian employees of a military business, which comprise the majority of economic output, such as hotels. The government denied admission to trials for observers on an arbitrary basis.
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 trials concluded quickly and were closed to the press. In April, because of the COVID-19 pandemic public health emergency, most trials were converted to summary trials, with many defendants accused of poorly defined claims of “propagating an epidemic” or a range of crimes referred to as “illicit economic activity,” such as hoarding scarce goods. According to state media, in summary trials neither prosecutors nor defense counsel need to be present, only a judge. This protocol, however, imposes a limit on the length of the sentence. If the potential sentence exceeds one year, defendants are to be assigned a lawyer. Defendants may hire lawyers and bring them to the trial; however, few persons received legal representation.
Due process rights apply equally to citizens and foreigners, but courts regularly failed to protect or observe these rights. The law provides criminal defendants the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. 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 requires that defendants be represented by an attorney, at public expense if necessary. Defendants’ attorneys may cross-examine government witnesses and present witnesses and evidence. Private attorneys are not licensed to practice in criminal courts, forcing defendants to rely on lawyers who work for the very government that is prosecuting them, provided by the Ministry of Justice. These attorneys reportedly were often reluctant to defend individuals charged with political crimes or associated with human rights cases and in many cases did not appear to provide adequate counsel, often meeting their clients for the first time when the trial was convened.
Criteria for admitting evidence were arbitrary and discriminatory. According to reports, prosecutors routinely introduced irrelevant or unreliable evidence to prove intent or offered testimony about the defendant’s “revolutionary credentials,” which refers to a defendant’s perceived loyalty to the PCC or lack thereof. Generally, the government discounted testimony of defense witnesses if they provided information unhelpful to the government’s case.
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 “state security” cases, defense attorneys were not allowed access to investigation files 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.
In trials where defendants are charged with “precriminal dangerousness,” the state must show only that the defendant has a “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 NGO Cuban Prisoners Defenders noted that of the estimated 90,000 persons in prison, 11,000 were convicted or charged with “precriminal dangerousness.”
The law recognizes the right of appeal in municipal courts but limits the right of appeal in provincial courts to cases involving lengthy prison terms or the death penalty.
On July 21, Anyelo Troya, cinematographer for the music video “Patria y Vida” (Homeland and Life), was sentenced in a secret summary trial to 10 months in prison for “public disorder” but was released on July 24 pending appeal.
As of July 23, at least 19 summary trials were completed against 59 persons accused of participating in the July 11 protests, judicial authorities stated to international media. According to Supreme Court president Ruben Remigio Ferro, most of the cases heard in municipal courts were of individuals convicted of committing less serious crimes, such as public disorder and contempt, and all the accused “had been given every opportunity” to appoint a lawyer, although some had chosen not to do so.
As of December 21, the NGO Justicia 11J confirmed through the review of legal documents that at least 407 July protesters faced possible harsh sentences of up to 30 years’ imprisonment. Prosecutors had inappropriately charged several protesters, including those who were minors at the time of their arrest, with serious crimes such as attack, assault, and sedition to seek the maximum sentence possible. Justicia 11J confirmed at least 141 protesters faced sedition charges. On November 18, a court sentenced 23-year-old Sissi Abascal, the youngest member of Ladies in White, a nonviolent organization, to six years’ imprisonment for protesting on July 11 and alleged assault.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The government held political prisoners and detainees but denied it did so. It refused access to its prisons and detention centers by international humanitarian organizations and the United Nations.
The NGO Cuban Prisoners Defenders estimated there were at least 712 political prisoners in detention as of November. The lack of governmental transparency, along with systemic abuse of due process rights, obscured the true nature of criminal charges, investigations, and prosecutions. This allowed 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 the number of these inmates. 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 frequently denied political prisoners access to home visits, prison classes, telephone calls, and, on occasion, family visits. Political prisoners did not receive appropriate health care, including while suffering COVID-19 symptoms.
On June 15, authorities arrested journalist Lazaro Yuri Valle Roca of the independent press agency Delibera on charges of crimes against state security after summoning him to the police station under the guise of closing a court case regarding contempt that had been open since the previous August. (Valle Roca is the nephew of opposition leader Vladimir Roca.) Valle Roca had no communications with his family or lawyer for more than 100 days, and he went on a hunger strike but stopped due to kidney failure. International press organizations denounced the arrest as a trap and called for his release.
On July 11, security forces arrested Jose Daniel Ferrer, the leader of UNPACU, one of the largest active opposition organizations in the country, and held Ferrer incommunicado for 89 days. In August a court document showed authorities reversed the terms for his home detention and required him to serve the remaining four years of a February 2020 sentence in prison. Ferrer was held in solitary confinement with poor ventilation and inadequate amounts of food or water. Prison authorities refused him medical assistance although he suffered from high blood pressure, severe headaches, chills, pain, constant bleeding from his mouth, stomach problems, a cough, and shortness of breath. Additionally, prison authorities arbitrarily rejected much of the food, clothing, and bedding his family brought for him.
On July 12, security forces arrested Felix Navarro for attempting to join the protests the day before. Navarro was one of the 75 dissidents jailed during the 2003 “Black Spring” crackdown. Navarro engaged in a 25-day hunger strike to protest his unjust detention and fell ill with COVID-19. At year’s end family members stated that he remained in precarious health. He faced a possible 15-year prison sentence.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
It is possible to seek judicial remedies through civil courts for violations of administrative decisions, but independent legal experts noted general procedural and bureaucratic inefficiencies often delayed or undermined the enforcement of administrative decisions and civil court orders. Civil courts, like all other courts in the country, lacked independence, impartiality, and 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 the law requires police 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.
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, for epidemiological reasons, or spurious reports of a disturbance. Authorities also used seemingly legitimate reasons, often health related, such as fumigating homes as part of an antimosquito campaign or door-to-door COVID-19 checks, as a pretext for illegal home searches.
On May 2, security officers taunted and threatened human rights activist and UNPACU member Orestes Varona Medina in what observers said was an unsuccessful effort to provoke a confrontation. The next morning, after he received a summons to go to the Minas police station, several policemen raided his house while he was with his wife and young children, arrested him, carried him out by his hands and feet, and beat him. On May 8, he was sentenced for “propagating an epidemic” and contempt and sentenced to 10 months in prison.
The Ministry of Interior employed a system of informants and neighborhood groups, the 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 frequently subjected foreign journalists, visiting foreign officials, diplomats, academics, and businesspersons to surveillance, including electronic surveillance.
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, and 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 reduction of salary, termination of employment, denial of acceptance into university, expulsion from university, and other forms of harassment.
Arbitrary government surveillance of internet activity was pervasive and frequently resulted in criminal cases and reprisals for persons exercising their human rights. Internet users had to identify themselves and agree they would not use the internet for anything “that could be considered…damaging or harmful to public security.” User software developed by state universities gave the government access to users’ personal data and communications.