World

Amnesty calls for more freedom in Cuba

HAVANA (AP) — The human rights group Amnesty international appealed to Cuban President Raul Castro to release political prisoners and scrap laws that restrict fundamental freedoms, using the seventh anniversary of a major crackdown on dissent to call for change.

Amnesty was especially critical of Cuban laws that make vague offenses like "dangerousness" a jailable crime. Police are allowed to arrest somebody who has committed no crime if they can show the person has a proclivity to be dangerous in the future, Amnesty said.

"Cuban laws impose unacceptable limits on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly," Kerrie Howard, Americas deputy director at Amnesty International, said in a statement Tuesday. Howard said Cuba "desperately needs political and legal reform to bring the country in line with basic international human rights standards."

The group said it was making the call for change around the anniversary of one of Cuba's largest recent crackdowns on dissent — the March 18, 2003, arrest of some 75 people, including many independent journalists, on charges including treason and working for an enemy state.

Fifty-three of them remain jailed and many have received lengthy sentences.

The government did not respond to a request for comment on the Amnesty report, but routinely dismisses such human rights groups as tools of the United States.

Cuba's human rights situation has been brought back into the spotlight by the Feb. 23 death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo after a long hunger strike in jail. Another man, Guillermo Farinas, has refused to eat or drink since shortly after Zapata Tamayo's death, though he has intermittently received fluids and nutrients intravenously at a local hospital.

The European Parliament on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to condemn Cuba for Zapata Tamayo's death, which it called "avoidable and cruel." Cuba responded quickly, saying it "rejects impositions, intolerance and pressure."

On Tuesday, a leading official group for Cuban intellectuals issued a statement calling Zapata Tamayo a common criminal. It denounced international criticism as part of a smear campaign against the country, and singled out foreign "media corporations and hegemonic interests" as leading culprits in what it called a coordinated anti-Cuban effort.

"We know with what malice and morbidity they distort our reality and lie daily about Cuba," the National Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba wrote of the foreign media.

Mexico is the latest country to openly criticize the Cuban government, with the Foreign Ministry saying Monday that it regretted the death of Zapata Tamayo and was worried about the fate of Farinas.

"With all due respect to the sovereignty of the Republic of Cuba ... Mexico urges the Cuban government to take the actions necessary to protect the health and dignity of its prisoners, including those accused or convicted of the crime of dangerousness," it said.

It is not clear what Cuba's small, fractured opposition is planning to mark the March 18 anniversary. The Ladies in White, a group of mothers, wives and sisters of those jailed in 2003, has declared a week of protest including marches, prayer gatherings and the reading of letters from their jailed loved ones.

On Tuesday, dozens of government supporters screamed at the women as they marched peacefully in Havana, shouting slogans like "Long live Fidel!"

Such "acts of repudiation" have become somewhat of a ritual in Cuba. The government claims they arise spontaneously as a result of Cubans's disgust with dissidents. Others believe that the government organizes them and that many of those taking part are members of state security.

In a statement sure to anger Cuba, Amnesty linked the fate of the dissidents and Cuba's overall human rights record to the eventual lifting of the 48-year U.S. economic embargo, which Cuba considers an illegal blockade.

"The long imprisonment of individuals solely for the peaceful exercise of their rights is not only a tragedy in itself," said Howard. "But also constitutes a stumbling block to other reforms, including the beginning of the dialogue needed for the lifting of the U.S. unilateral embargo against Cuba."

Cuba has steadfastly refused to link political reform it sees as an internal affair with its own demands that the embargo be lifted.

It denounces the dissidents as common criminals and mercenaries paid by Washington to destabilize the country, and insists all nations have the right to jail traitors and others seeking to overthrow their government.