Youth from Cuba’s poorest neighborhoods face decades in jail following protests

LA GUINERA, Cuba — Young Cuban protesters from Havana’s poorest neighborhoods face decades behind bars in upcoming trials, relatives and rights groups said, while some of the participants in unprecedented anti-government demonstrations last year have been cracked down.

Thousands took to the streets in cities across the island in the July 11-12 protests, many of whom denounced the communist-led government and shortages of food, medicine and electricity at a time when coronavirus cases were soaring .

According to human rights officials, more than 1,000 people were arrested after the protests. The trials of those accused of serious crimes began in mid-December and, according to the groups and interviews with the families of the accused, some have already resulted in prison sentences of more than 20 years.

The Cuban government did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on the trials.

However, authorities on the island have previously said those arrested have committed crimes including public disorder, resisting arrest, robbery and vandalism. Cuba accuses the United States of funding and fomenting the July riots.

In the impoverished La Guinera neighborhood of Havana — where a July 12 march was followed by vandalism, a confrontation with police and the only death during the riots — Reuters spoke to more than a dozen residents who said neighborhood youth, who joined the rallies now face harsh prison sentences.

They denied any major conspiracy against the government and said the decision to march was spontaneous.

Emilio Roman, 50, told Reuters his two sons, Emiyoslan, 18, and Yosney, 25, and his 23-year-old daughter Mackyani had joined the July protests and now face 15, 20 and 25-year prison sentences respectively, if sentenced. All three have been in prison since mid-July, Roman said.

“Everyone went out like they were going to a party because of the noise, but no one thought they were going to be that strict,” he said.

“The number of years (in prison) they’re aiming for is like they’re terrorists, murderers. They are my only three children,” Roman said, fighting back tears. “It’s a lot of pain.”

Another neighbor, Alcides Firdo, 47, said his son, Jaime Alcides Firdo, 22, was initially jailed on public riot charges after he allegedly threw stones during the July 12 march, but that the charges later came up Sedition has been upgraded.

The state is now aiming to jail his son for 20 years in a trial scheduled to start on January 17, Firdo said in an interview with Reuters.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “You kill a person (in Cuba) and they give you 8, 10, 15 years and now you’re going to throw them in jail for throwing a rock for… 20 years? That is an injustice.”

Reuters could not independently confirm the details of the two cases because court officials do not routinely speak to the media in Cuba, nor have they been able to contact the accused.

Laritza Diversent, director of US-based human rights group Cubalex, said Cuban authorities have increased penalties to set an example and stifle future protests.

“The government says, ‘Look, I’m not playing games … if you go out to protest again, that could happen to you, too,'” she said.

Several rights groups, including Cubalex, say the sentences for dozens of those already convicted, including for sedition, ranged from four to 30 years behind bars.

Reuters has seen several sentencing documents from December trials that ranged from 2 to 8 years in prison for protesters convicted of crimes including disobedience, disturbance of public order and assault. None of the convictions reviewed by Reuters concerned incitement to hatred, which carries the most severe penalties.

Not everyone who took part in last year’s demonstrations received harsh sentences. According to a Facebook post by historian Leonardo Fernandez Otano, Cuba recently dropped charges against several artists who protested outside the Cuban Radio and Television Institute on July 11.

He said race and poverty weighed on the process.

“I am grateful,” Fernandez Otano wrote on social media after the charges were dropped. “But I’m also sad because the young people of La Guinera haven’t had the same luck and have been sentenced to unjust and politicized punishments.”

The Cuban government has said it respects the rights of all those detained following the protests and that the harshest penalties are for repeat offenders and the most serious crimes.

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