U.N. Torture Committee Wants Answers

Wednesday, May 23, 2012
In McClatchy Newspapers:

Panel queries Havana on human rights abuses, prison deaths

A U.N. panel on torture Tuesday demanded that Cuba provide information on the deaths of several political prisoners, the repression of dissident groups such as the Ladies in White and the 2,400 arrests of government critics reported last year.

The demand came on the same day that Cuba's Granma newspaper and Prensa Latina news agency published reports defending the island's prison system, which faces allegations of "slave labor" in the 1980s and other current abuses.

Members of the U.N. Committee Against Torture, which is based in Geneva, requested the Cuban government explain the recent deaths of dissidents Orlando Zapata Tamayo and Wilman Villar after lengthy prison hunger strikes, and that of Juan Wilfredo Soto after an alleged beating by security officials.

Complaints that Cuban prisons are plagued by overcrowding, malnutrition, bad hygiene, and beatings for those who protest and forced exile for others have been received in Geneva, said panel member George Tugushi.

Cuba also has been asked to explain the "aggressions and harassments" against the Ladies in White, bloggers Yoani Sanchez and Orlando Luis Pardo and Zapata's mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, the panel noted during the first day of its two-day hearing on Cuba.

The U.N. committee also asked for explanations of the more than 2,400 short-term detentions of dissidents reported in 2011 by Havana human rights activists, including Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

"We want Cuba to clarify all these cases," said Nora Sveaass, one of the 10 panel members and a Norwegian human rights attorney, according to media reports from Geneva.

The panel, which monitors enforcement of the U.N. Convention on Torture and Other Physical Abuses and Transgressions, reviews the records of several U.N. member nations each year. This year it was Cuba's turn [...]

"Former prisoners... consistently describe deeply inhumane conditions in Cuba's prisons - from overcrowded cells to inadequate food and water, from poor medical treatment to a hazardous lack of hygiene," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division.

Sanchez and Vivanco also have noted that Cuba does not allow the Red Cross to inspect its prisons. "If Cuban prisons are model institutions, why prevent people from seeing them?" Vivanco asked.

Cuba now has 57,337 inmates, including 31,494 "in locked conditions," Granma noted, without explaining the meaning of the term.

Sanchez previously estimated the prison population at 70,000 to 80,000.

He noted that before Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Cuba had 14 prisons and 4,000 inmates in a population of 6 million, or about one inmate per 1,500. Today, the 57,337 inmates in a population of 11.2 million equal one per 195.