Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

Cuba Rebuts International Criticism Over Prisoner’s Death

HAVANA, Jan 23 2012 (IPS) - The Cuban government energetically rebutted what it regards as another campaign to discredit it, following the death in prison of a man who, according to the authorities, was not a dissident nor on hunger strike, as the opposition alleges.

In separate declarations, the Cuban Foreign Ministry rebuffed expressions of concern over the demise of prison inmate Wilman Villar by official sources in the United States and Spain, the countries where the fatality aroused most condemnation.

Cuban diplomats regarded the occurrence as regrettable, but “unusual in Cuba”. Villar, who died Jan. 19 in a hospital intensive care unit, was buried in the cemetery of his home town of Contramaestre in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba on Jan. 20.

The controversy over the event comes at a time when preparations are in full swing for the forthcoming visit to Cuba of Pope Benedict XVI in late March. His programme will include celebrating an open-air mass in Santiago de Cuba, the capital of the province of the same name, 861 km east of Havana.

A government communiqué published Jan. 21 in the newspaper Granma stated that Villar had been serving a four-year prison sentence for contempt, assault and resisting arrest. It added that his mother-in- law had reported him to the authorities for creating “a public scandal in which he assaulted his wife and injured her face”, and that he had subsequently been freed pending trial.

In contrast, human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez told IPS that the 31-year-old Villar belonged to the dissident Cuban Patriotic Union group, and had been on voluntary hunger strike since he was imprisoned in November 2011 as a protest against the “summary” trial he had been subjected to.

But the government communiqué insisted that “there is abundant proof and testimony that shows that he was not a ‘dissident’ nor was he on hunger strike.” It also said that Villar’s links with dissident groups in Santiago de Cuba were formed only after he had committed the crimes for which he was tried.

The “counter-revolutionary elements” with whom he made contact “convinced him that apparent membership of mercenary groups would allow him to escape justice”, according to the official information. Sánchez, on the other hand, blamed the government for Villar’s death, calling it a “tragedy” that in his view “could have been avoided”.

According to the official version, Villar died Jan. 19 in the intensive care unit of the Dr. Juan Bruno Zayas Clinical Surgical Hospital in Santiago de Cuba from “multiple organ failure following a severe respiratory infection leading to septic shock”.

“His closest relatives were aware of all the procedures employed during his medical care and recognised the efforts made by the team of specialists who treated him,” said the official report released the evening of Jan. 20.

Later that day, another communiqué was distributed to accredited foreign journalists, in which the head of the Foreign Ministry’s North America division, Josefina Vidal, said comments on the case from the U.S. Department of State and the White House were an example of “hypocrisy and double standards”.

Washington criticised Villar’s death, describing him as a “courageous defender of human rights in Cuba”, and calling for greater international scrutiny of this Caribbean island, including “full access to prisons” by United Nations Special Rapporteurs and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

“An unfortunate yet unusual event in Cuba has again been distorted and manipulated by narrow self-serving political interests to justify the policy of blockade against our country,” retorted Vidal, according to whom Washington’s statements are better suited to the record of human rights violations in the United States than in Cuba.

“It is not in Cuba where 90 prisoners have been executed since January 2010, while another 3,222 inmates remain on death row, awaiting execution. It must be remembered that the United States has already held its first execution of 2012 and its government ruthlessly represses those who dare to denounce the system’s injustice,” Vidal said.

Meanwhile, an unnamed spokesperson for the Cuban Foreign Ministry countered the claims and complaints of the centre-right People’s Party government in Spain, and of the European Union. The spokesperson told Prensa Latina, a Cuban state news agency, that neither Madrid nor Brussels have the moral authority to pass judgement on Cuba.

In the Foreign Ministry source’s view, both Spain and the EU should concern themselves rather with “investigating and punishing the numerous deaths in detention that occur in their institutions and the frequent acts of police brutality against demonstrators that occur systematically in Spain and other EU countries.”

Villar’s death comes nearly two years after that of Orlando Zapata, who died in prison Feb. 22, 2010 after an 85-day hunger strike, which created an uproar over human rights on the island. The tensions were assuaged by an unprecedented dialogue between President Raúl Castro and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

The conversations in mid-May 2010 between President Castro, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, and Dionisio García, president of the Cuban Bishop’s Conference, breathed fresh air into the political ambience and led to the release of 130 prisoners over the next few months up to early 2011.

Late last year 3,000 prisoners – most of them ordinary inmates – were granted presidential pardons in time for them to be home by Christmas. On Dec. 23, Castro announced the early release of 86 foreign prisoners to parliament, most of whose releases are still being processed.

A condition of these prisoner releases is that the governments of their countries of origin must accept the repatriation of their compatriots. As far as is publicly known, four Spanish citizens who were serving sentences for crimes committed in Cuba have already been released, and one of them has arrived back in Spain.

When he announced the pardons, Castro said they were in response to, among other considerations, requests from relatives and from religious institutions. At the same time they are a gesture of goodwill in the light of the pope’s forthcoming visit and the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the statue of the Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Cuba, whose shrine is in El Cobre, near Santiago de Cuba.

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