Cuban officials are committing “brutal abuses” against Cubans who participated in the largely peaceful July 11 protests against the country’s 62-year-old communist regime, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch on Tuesday.
The report comes as several protesters, still imprisoned without proper due process or representation, launch a hunger strike to oppose the regime’s detention of political prisoners.
“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.”
Those participating in the hunger strike confirmed reports from Human Rights Watch, saying that the Cuban government is torturing detainees and denying them medical care.
“I stand for the release of political prisoners and for my freedom. There are many sick people who are not being cared for,” 23-year-old Andy García Lorenzo said over the phone from a prison in Santa Clara, according to Diario de Cuba (DDC).
“I want to make a complaint and let the whole world know about it: in Cuba, human rights are not respected. We are many political prisoners who only receive mistreatment and threats and I got tired,” he said.
According to reports from the independent outlet Cubanet, more than 187,000 Cuban citizens nationwide participated in the protests, calling for the end of the regime. The Cuban Observatory for Human Rights (OCDH), a non-governmental organization that tracks detentions on the island, documented over 1,000 disappearances or arrests in Cuba between July 11 and August 1.
Soon after the protests began, Castro regime underling and figurehead President Miguel Díaz-Canel issued an “order of combat,” calling on both government forces and civilian supporters of the regime to retaliate against peaceful protesters with violence. Subsequent videos taken by civilians and posted to social media showed protesters facing live gunshots, receiving gang beatings at the hands of state security officers, and fleeing from tear gas and rubber bullets.
The “systematic” brutality continued for those arrested during and in the wake of the protests, according to the report, which documented human rights abuses against 130 people in 13 of Cuba’s 15 provinces, as well as the Isle of Youth. Human Rights Watch reportedly corroborated the abuses by interviewing more than 150 people, including activists, victims, their relatives, journalists, and lawyers with direct knowledge of the cases, in addition to analyzing available case files and documents.
“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,” according to the report. “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,” sometimes in the middle of the night. They were often asked about the “organization” and “financing” of demonstrations and were threatened with long prison sentences, according to the report.
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, according to the report. Hernández said during her detention, two female officers made her strip and squat naked five times while she coughed and pressed on her stomach.
“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,” the report states. “Officers repeatedly woke her up at night for interrogations, Zequeira said, asking why she had protested and who was “financing” her.”
She was reportedly sentenced to eight months in prison for “public disorder” on July 22 and was only able to see her layers for a few minutes before her hearing. A higher court later ruled that she could serve her sentence in house arrest — she said she and her family have not been able to obtain copies of the rulings.
The report further alleges that many detainees were held in “dark, crowded, and unsanitary prison cells” and had little access to clean water or safety measures to prevent the spread of Chinese coronavirus.
“Confirmed positive cases of Covid-19 [Chinese coronavirus] reached some of their highest peaks in Cuba in July and August. Some protesters appeared to have contracted the virus in detention,” according to the report.
Many protesters have been tried in groups of ten or more people, often in closed hearings. Prosecutors reportedly often accuse them of committing “vaguely defined crimes” like “public disorder,” and based only on statements from police officers, the report states.
As of August 19, Cuban authorities, who often obfuscate government data, said only 67 people have been sentenced in connection with the protests. The OCDH estimated in a report published in July that Cuban repressive forces have performed over 30,000 politically motivated arrests in the last five years, many repeat incidents against the island’s most vocal dissidents.
Frances Martel contributed to this report.