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Amnesty International: Sharp rise in short-term detentions of Cuban dissidents

Amnesty International said Thursday that Cuba has kept up a “permanentcampaign of harassment” against those who demand respect for civil andpolitical rights.

But its tactics have changed from long-term detentions to a churningof dissidents, human rights activists and independent journalists whoare picked up frequently, held for short periods and released, theinternational human rights organization said in a new report.

Amnesty pointed out, for example, that Caridad Caballero Batista, anindependent journalist from Holguin and a member of the Ladies inWhite, had been detained more than 17 times since July 2011 forreporting on demonstrations and human rights abuses. She often wasreleased after a few hours.

“The repression in Cuba is as strong as ever,’’ said Gerardo Ducos,Cuba researcher at Amnesty and author of the just released reportRoutine repression: Political short-term detentions and harassment inCuba.

“After the mass release of prisoners of conscience in 2011, we haveseen authorities sharpening their strategy to silence dissent byharassing activists and journalists with short-term detentions andpublic acts of repudiation,’’ he said.

The last of 75 dissidents imprisoned in a March 2003 crackdown knownas the Black Spring were released last year and most were sent intoexile in Spain. Cardinal Jaime Ortega also was instrumental inconvincing Cuban leader Raúl Castro to release additional prisoners.

Although Amnesty currently has adopted four Cuban prisoners ofconscience, two of whom have been imprisoned since Christmas Day 2010,shorter detentions have become the norm.

“Most of those detained in these circumstances may be prisoners ofconscience even if they are released after a short period ofdetention,’’ said the report.

In 2011, Hablemos Press Information Center, a non-governmental newsagency that monitors human rights abuses in Cuba, received reports of3,835 detentions — a two-fold increase from the previous year.

In the first two months of this year, Ducos said, the news agencyreceived reports of more than 800 short-term detentions.

The increased availability of cell phones and new media has enhancedactivists’ ability to report and document cases but Ducos said thegovernment also has stepped up repression.

Despite the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI for a three-day visit nextweek, the detentions have continued, Amnesty said.

The Ladies in White, a group organized by relatives of thoseimprisoned during the Black Spring who attend mass dressed in white,have been told they can no longer stage weekly marches after mass atSt. Rita’s Church in Havana.

Ducos said he also has received reports that Ladies in White whousually attend mass at the shrine of Our Lady of Charity in the townof El Cobre, outside Santiago, have been kept away for the past twoSundays. Only residents are allowed to go into the area around theshrine — ostensibly for security reasons, he said.

Benedict is scheduled to sleep at a priests’ residence in El Cobre onMonday night and will spend a short time in private prayer at theshrine before flying on to Havana.

“The Ladies in White have repeatedly suffered harassment andintimidation as they have attempted to carry out their peacefulactivities,’’ said the report.

Amnesty has called for immediate release of the prisoners ofconscience and an end to the “harassment, intimidation and persecutionof human rights activists, independent journalists and governmentcritics who peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of expression,assembly and association.”

It is also calling for the reform or revocation of a number of lawsthat have been used to prosecute dissidents and human rightsactivists.

Although a number of groups have written to Benedict urging him tomeet with dissidents or to ask for the release of prisoners during hisvisit to Cuba, Ducos said Amnesty had not been in touch with the pope.

Monitoring human rights abuses is a difficult task in Cuba, saidDucos. Amnesty had been permitted in Cuba only twice since 1990, hesaid.

Information is provided by numerous contacts and Amnesty tries todouble-check everything, but Ducos said it’s difficult to confirm someallegations, especially reports of beatings.

Thirteen dissidents who occupied the Our Lady of Charity Church inHavana last week reported that some of their numbers were dragged andbeaten when police removed them. But the Catholic Church, which askedpolice to intervene to clear the group from the church, said they wereremoved peacefully in 10 minutes.

“Like everything coming out of Cuba, there are often two or threeversions of events. Sometimes things are really difficult tocorroborate,’’ Ducos said.

But the bottom line, he said, is the government is not allowinggroups, such as the Ladies in White, “to occupy public space in Cuba.There is no middle point in Cuba. As Fidel Castro has said many times:you’re either with the revolution or you are against it.’’