HAVANA - If Cuba releases 52 prisoners of conscience as promised, it will still hold more than 100 people listed as political prisoners by the island’s leading human rights group. But a closer look will find bombers, hijackers and fallen intelligence agents mixed in with those jailed simply for insulting Fidel Castro.
The disagreement among human rights groups on who is a political prisoner is important to eliminating one of the main stumbling blocks to improved relations with the U.S. and the European Union.
Human rights groups say no list can give a full accounting of the repression in Cuba, where people who openly question the government’s authority may face harassment, arbitrary detention, surveillance or loss of their job.
But getting everyone to agree on just who is a political prisoner is impossible.
Cuba says it holds none, describing those in jail as mercenaries at best. Amnesty International counts just one “prisoner of conscience” who will remain after the current round of releases. Human Rights Watch fears there are “hundreds” of political prisoners.
Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, says Washington does not keep count but believes there are “more than 100.”
The most routinely cited list is one by Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, the only respected human rights agency allowed in Cuba.
While the group is not recognized by the government, it is tolerated, giving Sanchez - himself a government opponent and former prisoner - a unique role in the debate.
Sanchez’s commission counts 167 people jailed for political or sociopolitical reasons, including the 52 that the government has pledged to free as part of a July 7 agreement with the Roman Catholic Church. Fifteen already have been sent to Spain and the rest are due to go free in the next few months.
That would leave Sanchez's list - which is frequently cited by international agencies, journalists and politicians - with 115 names. But an Associated Press analysis shows that some of those would not normally be seen as political prisoners.
Ten people Sanchez includes are already out of jail on conditional parole, and one has completed his sentence. Of the remaining 104, about half were convicted of terrorism, hijacking or other violent crimes, and four are former military or intelligence agents convicted of espionage or revealing state secrets.
Gerardo Ducos, a London-based Amnesty International researcher specializing in the Caribbean, said his agency would never describe many on Sanchez’s list as “prisoners of conscience.”
“We describe a prisoner of conscience as somebody who goes to jail for their beliefs or for exercising peacefully- and that is a key component - their rights for freedom of expression,” Ducos said.
Sanchez’s list includes “people brought to trial for terrorism, espionage and those who tried, or actually succeeded, in blowing up hotels,” he added. “We certainly would not call for their release or describe them as prisoners of conscience.”
Indeed, Sanchez includes some notorious figures side-by-side with others who seem to have been imprisoned for peaceful political views:
- Salvadorans Ernesto Cruz and Otto Rodriguez, on death row for a 1997 bombing campaign that killed an Italian tourist.
- Cuban-American Humberto Eladio Real, a member of an anti-Castro group who was convicted of killing a policeman in 1994 when he stormed ashore in Villa Clara armed with assault rifles and other weapons. Four others involved in that assault are also on Sanchez’s list.
- Five people who hijacked a ferry in Havana harbor in 2003, holding knives to the throats of French tourists and demanding to go to the United States.
Sanchez says the list is not about prisoners’ motives or violent acts, but the fact that they were tried under part of the penal code that deals with “state security.”
“The Cuban penal code is a complete copy of the Soviet penal code. The first section doesn’t deal with assassination, murder or rape. It is about crimes against the state,” he said.
“The question is, if they are such awful cases, why does the government handle them like political crimes?” he said. “Why does the government treat the prisoners as counterrevolutionaries?”
Pressed to list only political prisoners, Sanchez cited 40 who were jailed for nonviolent, political reasons and 30 whose cases were political but involved violence.
Those in jail for nonviolent reasons include a man who hung an anti-Castro sign outside his home and three women protesting the trial of a relative convicted of the nebulous charge of “pre-criminal dangerousness.”
Several other people on the list - including some opposition figures - have been imprisoned on the charge, which critics say allows authorities to detain anyone they feel might commit a future crime.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said his agency has found at least 40 political prisoners jailed on charges of dangerousness who are not on Sanchez’s list.
He said it is impossible to know how many political prisoners are in Cuba in part because the government does not allow outside human rights groups to operate.
“It is reasonable to argue that the numbers are in the hundreds, taking into account the large number of Cubans who are serving time for dangerousness,” Vivanco said.
Vivanco said the human rights community can’t agree on what constitutes a political prisoner. Human Rights Watch recently cited Sanchez’s list in a press release, terming all those on it political prisoners.
After the 52 political prisoners set for release are free, the only Amnesty-recognized prisoner of conscience left in Cuba will be a lawyer named Rolando Jimenez Pozada, jailed on charges of disobedience and revealing state secrets.
Ducos said that while the number of political prisoners may be down, human rights in Cuba have not improved under Fidel Castro's brother Raul, who has been in charge since 2008.
“There has been a change in tactics under Raul Castro; there are fewer sentences, but more acts of intimidation and harassment,” he said. “Fear is still omnipresent in Cuban society, the fear of speaking up or of being overheard. In Cuba, the state controls everything.”