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Religious freedom commission issues detailed report on Cuban protests

HAVANA

YAMIL LAGE / AFP

John Burger - published on 09/21/21 - updated on 09/21/21

Some of those arrested during July 11 demonstrations are still missing, USCIRF says.

Since the July 11 street protests throughout Cuba, some demonstrators who were arrested remain missing, said the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). 

Thousands of Cubans took to the streets in cities across the island on July 11 to call for greater freedom and relief from the country’s economic and COVID-19 crises. 

“Cuban authorities responded by detaining, often violently, an estimated 700 demonstrators and activists,” USCIRF said in a factsheet examining how the protests and the resulting crackdown by Cuban authorities have impacted freedom of religion or belief. 

The factsheet, published Monday, also highlights some of the religious leaders and members of religious communities who were detained and now face criminal charges for peaceful protesting. It also outlines ways in which the U.S. government has supported Cuban protestors’ calls for greater freedom and opportunities to advance religious freedom on the island.

“Since the July 11 protests (’11J’), an unknown number of protesters remain detained, disappeared, and under house arrest,” USCIRF said. “Many are being held incommunicado, without access to family or legal support. Cuban authorities have charged some of the detained individuals with crimes such as inciting unrest and disobedience and held mass ‘trials’ that lack any semblance of due process. The government has also issued new restrictions on online speech. This crackdown has cultivated fear among protesters and human rights activists that the government’s repression will continue. Diverse religious communities in Cuba have spoken in support of the protesters and greater freedom of expression, emphasizing the fundamental rights to peaceful demonstrations and freedom of expression or opinion.”

Those detained included several religious leaders and members of religious communities.

USCIRF’s 2021 Annual Report says that religious freedom conditions in Cuba are poor. The Cuban government uses a system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment to control and suppress religious groups and others for their advocacy or support of religious freedom, the report says. The Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) repressively enforces religious restrictions, particularly against independent and unregistered religious communities.

Priest hit with a bat

The factsheet details the fate of some of the religious leaders involved in the July 11 protests, including Fr. Castor José Álvarez Devesa. Fr. Álvarez attended the demonstration in Camagüey, when authorities reportedly hit him with a bat, USCIRF said. When he went to seek medical attention, he was arrested.

“Fr. Álvarez has long been a strong critic of the Cuban regime and called for greater religious freedom in Cuba, including in a 2018 open letter to then-President Raúl Castro,” the factsheet said. Álvarez was released two days after his arrest.

Others are still in jail, such as Pastor Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo. Rosales Fajardo, a member of the Apostolic Movement, was detained in Santiago de Cuba by state security while peacefully protesting on July 11, along with his 17-year-old son. The Apostolic Movement is an unregistered network of Protestant churches that experiences ongoing harassment by Cuban authorities. 

“According to reports, Pastor Rosales Fajardo was placed in a chokehold and repeatedly kicked during his arrest,” USCIRF said. “He was separated from his son, who was later released on bail after being held incommunicado for nearly a week. Pastor Rosales Fajardo was held incommunicado and without any proof of life for weeks after the protests. Although his wife was eventually able to locate him, authorities have only permitted Pastor Rosales Fajardo limited contact with his wife and lawyer.”

On August 2, Cuban authorities denied his lawyer’s request for habeas corpus, which would have required that Rosales be present in court and be provided with a reason for his arrest. On August 7, Rosales was transferred to a maximum-security prison.

The Biden Administration has taken steps to hold accountable those responsible for the repression, including issuing sanctions against Cuba’s Policia Nacional Revolucionaria, responsible for the assault on Fr. Álvarez. President Biden said that more sanctions will be forthcoming.

Tags:
CubaReligious Freedom
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