Prison Labor with Internment: the Punishment for Defending Human Rights in Cuba

Yobel Sevila Martinez, a Guantánamo activist, faces 5 years of prison labor with internment after flawed process. His case thickens the list of political prisoners in the country.

Are there political prisoners in Cuba? On March 21, 2016, during the visit to Cuba by US President Barack Obama, a journalist ventured to throw this controversial question at Raul Castro, president of Cuba, during the press conference. He crudely and sardonically replied: “Give me the list of political prisoners right now so that they can be released.”

Not surprisingly, numerous human rights organizations have denounced the persecution and criminalization of human rights defenders in Cuba, which the state has continued to deny despite overwhelming evidence. Yobel Sevila Martinez is one of them. Tomorrow, on July 13, the sentence that condemns him to spend the next five years behind bars performing prison labor would come into effect. His crime? Being a human rights activist.

Why are they persecuting him?

On July 7, 2015, in Guantanamo, during a popular festival, a fight between strangers broke out. Around eight policemen intervened, but instead of stopping the fight, they attacked and arrested Yobel and his three friends. A year later, the State has accused him of assaulting two officers which resulted in the fracturing one of the officer’s fingers and the hand of another. These acts allegedly occurred while Yobel was with the officers at the police station, where he spent 72 hours in detention.

“I am being accused of injuring two policemen, but no handcuffed person can injure another,” said Yobel Sevila.

Is this the reason why he is being persecuted? This lays bare the modus operandi of incrimination and condemnation of human rights defenders: the use of fabricated charges for locking them up and inhibiting their work.

Months after the incident and without knowing about the investigatory file that had been opened up against him, Yobel was detained for three months until his release in March 2016. He was being accused of causing injuries with aggravating circumstances. Since the beginning, the process has been plagued with anomalies. The trial was postponed three times, originally it was scheduled for March 15, in April it was postponed again and finally took place on May 13, but because they were missing two of the prosecution’s witnesses, it did not finally end until June 10. A single witness was permitted for Yobel, while there were four presented by the prosecution. The policemen who were involved in his arrest had contradictory and inconsistent versions and even more surprising was that one of the injured policemen could not remember which hand was the one that had suffered the fracture.

On July 29, 2016, the decision was concluded with a sentence of penal labor with internment for 5 years, which was appealed on the same day. On the upcoming July 13 – if this appeal is denied, which is common on the island – the sentence will stand.

With his hands tied

The State alleges that Yobel attacked the policemen when he was against the floor with his hands cuffed behind his back, completely defenseless. This is similar to the situation of having to defend oneself against a state in which there is no right to a fair trial or judicial independence. With only one day before the judgment becomes effective, time is running against Yobel.

Is he afraid? Human rights activists know the system and the security apparatus they face. In Cuba, in addition to the recurrent arbitrary arrests, activists have to contend with sentences that range from two to five years in prison on trumped up charges, many times without even having a lawyer that would present a defense.

Under a corrupt system and a president who denies that political prisoners exist before the international press, it is worth asking: Are there political prisoners in Cuba? The answer will not be given by the state apparatus, but rests within the experience of men and women like Yobel.

“This news hurt. They are depriving you of your freedom, the world knows that our struggle is peaceful. The government always with its tricks is trying to prosecute human rights defenders unjustly. It is a policy here, “he said.

You can find more details about Yobel’s case here




Miranda Fuertes is human rights defender focused on Cuba and based in Prague, Czech Republic