Amnesty names 5 Cubans ‘prisoners of conscience’

HAVANA: Amnesty International designated five Cubans detained on the island as “prisoners of conscience” on Sunday and called for their immediate release.

The New York-based human rights watchdog highlighted the cases of Rafael Matos Montes de Oca, Emilio Planas Robert and brothers Alexeis, Diango and Vianco Vargas Martin. It said they have been held for months in eastern provincial lockups.

“These five cases are only the tip of the iceberg for Cuba’s repression of free speech,” Amnesty special adviser Javier Zuniga said in a statement.

Cuban officials, who did not respond to a request for comment Sunday, deny holding any political prisoners. The government and its supporters call dissidents “counterrevolutionaries” and “mercenaries” who take foreign money to try to undermine the island’s Communist system.

Cuba has cleared its jails of internationally recognized prisoners of conscience in recent years. In April 2011, the last of 75 dissidents and activists sentenced to long prison terms after a 2003 crackdown walked free under a deal brokered by the Roman Catholic Church. Many went into exile with their families.

At the time, Amnesty said it no longer recognized any prisoners of conscience in Cuba. On several occasions since then it designated islanders as political prisoners and they were released days, weeks or months later.

Most recently, Amnesty said, independent journalist Calixto Martinez was named a prisoner of conscience in January and freed in April after nearly seven months without formal charge.

The five named Sunday are the only ones Amnesty currently recognizes as prisoners of conscience in Cuba.

Amnesty said Matos Montes de Oca and Planas Robert were convicted of “dangerousness” or “special proclivity to commit crimes,” a statute that can be broadly interpreted.

It said they were arrested in late September after anti-government posters were put up in the eastern city of Guantanamo. Both belong to a dissident group called the Patriotic Union of Cuba.

The Vargas Martin brothers are the sons of a member of the Ladies in White opposition group. Alexeis was arrested Nov. 27 in Santiago as he tried to return to his home, which had been surrounded by pro-government counter-protesters, Amnesty said.

The group said his 17-year-old twin brothers were arrested Dec. 2 as they protested his detention outside a police station. Police have accused the three of using violence or intimidation against authorities, but no formal charges have been filed.

Zuniga gave Cuba credit for scrapping a long-standing exit visa requirement earlier this year that had made it difficult for islanders to travel abroad and was frequently denied to dissidents, but he said repression of free speech remains.

“Much more needs to be done to guarantee civil and political liberties in the country,” he said.

A spokesman for the nongovernmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which tracks arrests of dissidents, said it was monitoring the five men and considers their punishments out of line with the alleged violations.

“We have them on our list,” Juan Goberna said. “We are asking for their freedom and we have been following their cases.”

Activists say that rather than hold government opponents for long terms, authorities have increasingly adopted the tactic of arresting dissidents briefly to harass them and prevent them from carrying out protests.

Hundreds of catch-and-release detentions occur each month, Goberna’s group says.