MIAMI: Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday (Oct 19) that Cuba's government had arbitrarily arrested, beaten and abused protesters following unprecedented demonstrations earlier this year in a bid to strike fear into the populace and clamp down on dissent.
Thousands of Cubans marched on Jul 11 in the largest protests to rock the communist-run country since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. Security forces shut down the rallies amid a flurry of arrests and one death. The streets of the island nation have since been largely quiet.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it had documented at least 130 cases in which security forces violated due process, beat, sexually abused or forced into solitary confinement citizens participating in rallies it described as "overwhelmingly peaceful anti-government protests".
Cuba has denied reports of systematic abuses or torture. The government has blamed the protests on meddling by the United States, which has for decades openly sought to force reform on its island neighbour through sanctions and financing for democracy programs.
Human Rights Watch said it had nonetheless gathered evidence of rights abuses by Cuban police and military from phone interviews with activists, victims, their relatives, journalists, and lawyers, as well as from case files, press reports and photos and video.
“When thousands of Cubans took to the streets in July, the Cuban government responded with a brutal strategy of repression designed to instil fear and suppress dissent,” said HRW researcher Juan Pappier.
Over 1,000 people were arrested, according to the Cuban rights group Cubalex, and at least 500 are still detained or under house arrest.
Cubans have suffered food, fuel and medicine shortages for the last few years, as well as widespread power blackouts since June, issues made acute by the two-year pandemic that shuttered the global tourism industry critical to keeping Cuba's economy afloat.
"They took to the streets because they had nothing to lose," Human Rights Watch director Jose Miguel Vivanco told reporters in Miami. "Well, the government showed them first-hand that they had a lot to lose."
The abuse allegations come just weeks ahead of another dissident march slated for Nov 15, the first major call to protest since Jul 11. Cuba has already declared the march - set for the same day the Caribbean island nation plans to reopen to international tourism - illegal, setting up an ill-timed showdown with protesters.
HRW director Vivanco said it was likely the government would be much better prepared this time around.
"We shall see if, for the 15th of November, Cubans ... will be allowed to exercise their universally protected right to peaceful protest, or if they will be stifled by fear."