Cuban artist detained for his work and declared prisoner of conscience

At the end of March 2020, the Cuban government announced a series of measures to promote social distancing and contain the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in the country. The policies adopted included mandatory quarantine for travellers, movement restrictions and closing borders to non-residents.

Expression

On 1st March 2020, plastic artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was detained under alleged charges of “insult to patriotic symbols” and “property damage”. The artist was arrested when leaving his house to attend a peaceful demonstration organised by the LGBTIQ community. According to Frontline Defenders, his girlfriend Claudia Genlui was violently beaten during the arrest, and both had their phones confiscated. This latest incident generated a national and international outcry and Alcántara was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, having been detained over 20 times in the space of 30 months. The artist was released from preventive detention on 13th March 2020 with his trial on the charges still pending.

On 27th March 2020, two journalists denounced being summoned by State Security in Havana and interrogated because of their work. Cubanet reporter Camila Acosta was fined for her social media posts, allegedly under Decree 370 which regulates internet use in Cuba and sanctions the dissemination of information “contrary to social interest, morals and good manners”. On the same day, Diario de Cuba correspondent Yoel Suárez denounced having been summoned for an “interview” in which two officers threatened reprisals against him and his family if he did not stop his reporting.

On 17th March 2020, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a press release expressing concern “regarding the increased harassment and criminalisation of journalists, artists, human rights defenders and opponents in Cuba”. The Special Rapporteur also condemned arbitrary arrests and prosecution seeking to silence those who exercise the right to freedom of expression. The note details several violations of this freedom at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, including the harassment and detention of journalists, political leaders and artists. According to IACHR, state agents are the main source of threats and attacks against the press in the country, a practice that the Special Rapporteur’s Office said must be dismantled and sanctioned.

Association

In March 2020, the Cuban government reportedly denied six young activists permission to leave the country to attend the 175th session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Haiti. The defenders, who are members of youth organisations, were supposed to attend an audience on the human rights situation of women, youth and activists in Cuba which took place on 6th March 2020. The activists sent a video to denounce the challenges for youth participation in the country, including the reiterated persecution and harassment of young defenders who are critical of the government.

On 27th March 2020, political prisoner Ismael Boris Reñí, an activist with the Unión Patriótica de Cuba (Patriotic Union of Cuba - UNPACU), was released from detention. Reñí was arrested on 20th November 2018 for alleged “contempt of authority” and had been sentenced to two years in jail in August 2019. As reported by human rights defender Ángel Moya, Ismael has scars and side-effects from a severe skin infection which was not properly treated while he was incarcerated.

On 6th March 2020, lawyer and human rights defender Julio Ferrer Tamayo was banned from traveling to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he would have participated in an event on freedom of association organised by non-profit Centro para la Apertura y el Desarrollo de América Latina (Centre for the Opening and Development of Latin America - CADAL). Tamayo told news media that authorities at the airport were not able to explain the restriction and referred him to the Department of Interior for information. In November 2019, the lawyer had also been prevented from travelling without explanation.

Peaceful Assembly

On 12th March 2020, over a hundred people marched toward the local Communist Party headquarters in Santa Clara, Villa Clara province, to protest the closure of a local market and other restrictions affecting vendors in the country. Many of the demonstrators were informal vendors, who chanted “We pay fees, we are not delinquents!”. The region’s official daily, Vanguardia, published an article arguing that the market closure sought to curb illegal activity, and delegitimising the protest by saying that “citizen disorders” are not an effective way to reach goals and that the people reject this kind of demonstration.