Cuban prisons torture, former inmates claim
Two former prisoners say they were tortured while incarcerated, but
Cuban officials deny the allegations.
By JUAN O. TAMAYO
Inmates in a high-security prison in eastern Cuba are alleging that
guards punish infractions with beatings and handcuffings in
excruciatingly painful positions known as ``the rocker'' and ``Shakira.''
In the rocker, prisoners' hands are handcuffed behind their backs to the
opposite legs, and they are left on their stomachs or sides for hours
and even days, said Yordis Garcia, released Aug. 31 after serving one
year at the prison in Guantánamo.
The Shakira involves hand and leg shackles linked to waist chains that
are also applied for long periods and force prisoners to shuffle
somewhat like the Colombian pop singer, wrote Ernesto Durán, still being
held at the prison.
García and Durán's complaints were sent to the Miami-based Cuban
Democratic Directorate this fall as human rights activists in Cuba and
abroad prepared for a visit, now postponed, by a U.N. investigator on
A GOOD FACE
The Cuban government also has been preparing for the visit, reducing the
use of the rocker and Shakira in recent months and taking ``cosmetic
measures'' such as painting some prisons and fixing bathrooms, said
Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz, head of the Cuban Human Rights and National
Reconciliation Commission in Havana.
Government inspectors made a rare visit to the Canaleta prison in Ciego
de Avila province in October after an inmate complained publicly that a
guard introduced a pencil into his rectum in search of contraband drugs,
El Nuevo Herald reported recently.
The Cuban government has steadfastly maintained it does not torture or
``In the last 50 years there has not been a single person disappeared, a
case of torture or extrajudicial execution,'' then-Foreign Minister
Felipe Pérez Roque declared in January.
`NOT THE POLICY'
``In Cuba it is not the policy, or the government's interest, to
disappear or torture anyone,'' said Alberto González, spokesman for the
Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington. ``And there are things that
happen in other prisons, including U.S. prisons, that are similar or
worse yet don't receive this type of analysis.''
Sánchez said the Cuban government has never explained why it has not
allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit its
prisons since 1989, and added that many prisoners have reported
suffering the rocker and Shakira over the years. He called them part of
the ``cruel and inhuman punishments that are the rule in Cuban prisons.''
The Shakira is ``less worrisome'' because those types of shackles are
used in prisons all over the world to transport inmates, Sánchez added,
``although in Cuba it is used not to transport prisoners but to punish
them. But the rocker is a form of torture.''
Beatings with rubber-covered metal truncheons known as tonfas and
solitary confinements are the most common forms of prison abuse --
especially in the island's estimated 50 high-security facilities,
Sanchez added in a telephone interview from Havana.
CRIES AND SCREAMS
García and Durán said guards regularly used beatings and the rocker and
Shakira restraints against prisoners held in the special punishment
cells in the Guantánamo facility.
During the 20 days in October that he spent in one of the three
punishment cells, the guards used the two restraints against other
inmates ``daily, daily, daily,'' García said. ``I could hear their cries
and their screams. That was terrible.''
The restraints were used more against common criminals because guards
are careful with political activists, he added.
The punishment cells were three feet by six feet, with solid doors
instead of bars and holes on the floor for toilets that drew rats and
García, 34, said he was never put in the rocker and experienced the
Shakira only when he was walked to the infirmary and other places. ``But
they really tighten that chain around the waist, making it very
difficult to breathe,'' he said.
``To me, it is also torture.''
LETTER TO RAUL
An activist in the Cuban Youth for Democracy Movement, he served a
one-year sentence for ``resistance'' during a confrontation with police.
He denounced the restraints in a September letter to the Cuban
Durán complained about the Shakira in a July letter to Cuban ruler Raúl
Castro, and the Directorate received a copy in late October. He was
convicted in 1995 on charges of trying to leave the country illegally,
but was later convicted of staging a prison protest and ``disrespect''
for Fidel Castro. He's serving sentences totaling 22 years.
In January, Havana invited Manfred Nowak, the special raporteur on
torture for the U.N. Human Rights Council, to make his first-ever visit
to the island.
The visit is now expected no earlier than February.
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