The Cuban government engaged in systematic abuses against people arrested for protesting in July as part of a plan to suppress dissent, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday that documents 130 cases of arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment of detainees, and abuse-ridden criminal prosecutions.
According to the report, many of the detainees were held “incommunicado for days or even weeks, violently arrested, and, in some cases, ill-treated during detention.” Abuses in prison included being forced to “squat naked, apparently deliberately deprived of sleep, brutally beaten, and held in cells without natural light” or with little access to clean water.
The organization also says Cuban authorities systematically violated detainees’ rights to a fair trial, conducting summary trials and denying access to lawyers.
The New York-based watchdog organization said its investigators conducted more than 150 interviews, reviewed files, and verified images to document the 130 arrests of people across the island. The report says the information published about each case is based on direct accounts of the person detained, a relative, or their lawyer.
“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.”
In a press conference in Miami on Tuesday, HRW’s director for the Americas, José Miguel Vivanco, said that the repression against the detainees was not accidental but “a state policy sanctioned at the highest level, to stop and prevent any effort of the Cuban people to exercise their right to peaceful protest.”
The activist called on the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, and the Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, to condemn the Cuban government.
“If we forget about Cuba, if we normalize the repression in Cuba and assume that this is predictable, that there are no freedoms there, that these people are condemned to live in those conditions, it is challenging for conditions to improve,” he said. “It requires a concerted, universal pressure, an alliance of democracies that demand a transition to democracy in Cuba.”
Vivanco also urged the Biden administration to remove the decades-long embargo on the island. He said that the “unilateral sanctions” of the United States against the Cuban government were “counterproductive” and a diplomatic obstacle for other countries to condemn Cuba’s “deplorable” human rights record.
The Cuban Embassy in Washington did not reply to a comment request about the report.
The report paints a damning picture of the Cuban government’s response to unprecedented islandwide demonstrations on July 11. HRW says the organization found that the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful and that out of the 130 documented cases, only a few detainees were accused of throwing stones at police officers, accusations they denied. The report also mentions that no one has been held accountable for the death of 36-year-old protester Diubis Laurencio Tejeda during a demonstration in La Güinera, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana, and the only casualty officially reported that day.
The Cuban Human Rights Observatory, a nongovernmental organization based in Madrid, said it obtained documents showing Tejeda was shot in the back by a police officer. The Miami Herald has not been able to confirm it independently.
A legal aid organization, Cubalex, has documented 1,124 arrests connected to those events, and 566 people are still detained. Of those, 15 are 18 years old or younger. Cuban officials have repeatedly denied that minors were arrested.
The investigation found that officers engaged in gender-based violence against a minor, Gabriela Zequeira Hernández, a 17-year-old student arrested in Havana. She told HRW fact-checkers that during detention, two female officers made her strip and squat naked.
“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. Officers repeatedly woke her up at night for interrogations, Zequeira said, asking why she had protested and who was ‘financing’ her,” the report says.
Zequeira also gave similar testimony to independent news outlet Cubanet. She was sentenced to eight months in prison for “public disorder.” She could only see her lawyer a few minutes before the hearing, the report says, and later was allowed to serve her sentence on house arrest. Zequeira and her family said they have not been able to obtain copies of the rulings.
HRW also highlights the case of Michel Parra González, a 20-year-old hospital employee who was detained on July 11, in Matanzas, east of Havana. The following day, officers took him to an interrogation room where eight agents kicked him and hit him with their fists and batons for about 15 minutes, the report says.
“He received blows to the back, hands, feet, testicles and buttocks,” the document says. Parra Gonzalez told HRW investigators that one police officer told him, “We should put a bullet in people like you.” Another one said, “This is for you to know what happens when you oppose the revolution.”
He said he never received medical attention for the blows, and prison officers did not allow him to file a report on the beatings. He was charged with “public disorder” and released under house arrest for pre-trial on Aug. 2. In September, authorities asked him and his sister Ana Laura, who was also arrested for demonstrating, to pay a fine to have their cases closed. They paid.