HAVANA — The number of political prisoners held in Cuba has dropped slightly but the overall rights situation remains “unfavorable” under President Raúl Castro’s government with more brief detentions of dissidents, the island’s leading independent human rights group said last Tuesday.
The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation said in its twice-yearly report that it documented 219 political prisoners held on the island as of July 20, down from 234 in early 2008.
The drop is “minimal,” commission head Elizardo Sanchez wrote in the report. “Two years after certain adjustments in the top levels of government, the situation for civil, political and economic rights continues to be very unfavorable.”
Raúl Castro took power from his ailing elder brother Fidel in July 2006, when the commission counted 316 prisoners. The younger Castro permanently assumed the presidency in February.
Despite a net drop of 97 prisoners over 24 months, Sanchez insisted the remaining number is too high. The number of people held for political reasons in Cuba “is among the highest in the world” considering the country’s small size, he wrote.
Sanchez said that instead of sentencing opponents to long prison terms, the government now employs “low intensity” repression, such as the 640 brief detentions of dissidents his group documented over the past six months.
In those cases, opponents are typically detained by police so they cannot attend scheduled meetings or protests, then released after a few hours with no charges filed.
Funded by independent international rights organizations, the commission operates independently of the government and without its approval, but has been largely tolerated. Even during a government crackdown on the opposition in March 2003, the commission continued to provide information about the arrests and trials.
The commission documents its information through direct contact with the prisoners’ relatives or inmates themselves and its reports are regularly used by international groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Cuban officials say they do not hold any political prisoners and dismiss dissidents as “mercenaries” who take money from the U.S. government to destabilize the island’s communist system. Officials maintain they respect human rights more than those in most countries, given the free education and health care and other subsidized services their system provides.
The commission’s list includes 11 people since released for medical reasons, saying they could be returned to prison at any time for parole violations. It also includes prisoners convicted of violent acts, such as Salvadorans Otto René Rodríguez Llerena and Raúl Ernesto Cruz León, sentenced to death for terrorism in the bombings of Havana hotels that killed an Italian tourist.