Cuba lawmakers approve greater rights for protesters accused of crimes

HAVANA – The Cuban National Assembly passed a series of bills on Thursday that expand citizens’ legal rights, even as the communist-led country comes under fire at home and abroad earlier this year to crack down on protests.

The changes result from the 2019 Constitution, which required reforms to modernize Cuba’s judicial and criminal codes. But they do address legal loopholes identified by activists who claim the authorities were on display following due process unprecedented protests on the island in July.

Cuban lawmakers and judges said the new laws increase protection for those charged with a crime and should improve transparency.

For example, they require that defendants be informed of possible charges against them and that those arrested be granted the right to a lawyer within 24 hours.

Under the new law, citizens will also have access to their own court records and documents.

Eloy Viera, a Cuban attorney and legal analyst who lives in Canada, said the laws are a huge step forward in enshrining a citizen’s right to defend themselves in court.

“This law offers more guarantees and adheres much more closely to international standards than the current regulations,” said Viera.

But how those laws are implemented will determine whether or not Cubans see significant changes in their legal rights, said William LeoGrande, professor of government at American University in Washington.

“The laws … still give civil servants considerable discretion and only time will tell how they use them, especially in political cases,” he said.

Dissidents and human rights organizations say that more than 1,000 protesters were arrested after the July protests, the largest anti-government rallies since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. Some detainees have been held without charge, without contact with the outside world and without representation, human rights groups say.

The Cuban government says the crimes arrested in July are guilty of public unrest, opposition to the arrest and vandalism. It has declared the opposition marches scheduled for November 15 illegal and stated that they will be funded and sponsored by the United States.

The laws passed on Thursday are expected to come into force in 2022. Legal analyst Viera said they were unlikely to apply retrospectively.

“I don’t think this new legislation will have a definite impact on the processes that have already been initiated and politically motivated by the July 11th demonstrators today,” he said.

Some legal experts said any advances in the criminal code were being overshadowed by the one-party system.

“Supreme Court justices can still be easily dismissed. No court can declare a National Assembly law unconstitutional, ”said retired Cuban-American scholar Jorge Dominguez. “There is no independent body to protect constitutional rights.”

However, the reforms remove a long-criticized law that allowed authorities to detain someone they believed was potentially dangerous, a maneuver that critics say was often used against dissidents.

They also contain a prohibition on unlawful detention.

Independent journalist Yoani Sanchez said that was not enough.

“There are still repressive laws in place that are often arbitrarily used against opponents, activists and independent journalists, such as house arrest and travel bans,” she wrote.

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