Amnesty International on Wednesday placed four jailed Cubans on its global list of prisoners of conscience, the only inmates on the island to have such a designation, and denounced the Communist-run government for what it called a campaign of intimidation and short-term detentions targeting the opposition.
The report, released just days ahead of a visit to Cuba by Pope Benedict XVI, said the human rights situation on the island "has further deteriorated" with thousands of express detentions meant to cow the small dissident community. It said detainees are threatened and sometimes beaten before release.
"The Cuban government wages a permanent campaign of harassment and short-term detentions of political opponents to stop them from demanding respect for civil and political rights," Amnesty wrote. "Criticism of the government is not tolerated in Cuba and it is routinely punished."
There was no immediate reaction from the government, but it routinely dismisses Amnesty and other international rights groups as tools of the United States. It is particularly sensitive about claims of physical abuse, denying such practices and noting that the U.S. has been accused of torture of terror suspects at its naval base at Guantanamo Bay.
An editorial in Communist Party newspaper Granma on Wednesday accused dissidents on the island and exiles in South Florida of stirring up trouble ahead of the pope's visit to pressure the pontiff into statements criticizing the government. Cuba claims opposition figures are paid stooges controlled by Washington, its longtime enemy.
Amnesty noted that it has long spoken out against the 50-year U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, but also criticized the government of President Raul Castro for using the sanctions as an excuse to repress the rights of the Cuban people. Raul and his brother Fidel have led the country since 1959, and only the Communist Party is legal here.
"Regardless of US foreign policy toward Cuba, the Cuban authorities are solely responsible for the violations of civil and political rights," Amnesty said.
The report says one Cuban activist was detained 15 times between April and October of 2011, and another taken in 17 times since July for reporting on protest marches. It says authorities have also increased harassment of the Ladies in White dissident group that has sought to step up activities in the provinces.
Tensions between island authorities and the dissident community have been high in the lead-up to Benedict's arrival. On March 13, 13 dissidents occupied a church in Central Havana and demanded an audience with the visiting pontiff. Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega called police in to remove them two days later, though he won assurances from authorities that they would not be prosecuted.
Then on Sunday, more than 60 supporters of the Ladies in White were briefly detained. Some were taken into custody hours before their regularly scheduled protest march. Others made it to the march and were later hustled onto a bus belonging to state security. They were almost all released after several hours, but group leader Bertha Soler said Wednesday her husband, a dissident and former political prisoner in his own right, was held until Tuesday night.
In its report, Amnesty highlighted the cases of four Cubans who it said were in jail solely for the peaceful expression of political views:
_ Brothers Antonio Michel Lima Cruz and Marcos Maiquel Lima Cruz, the founders of a small online newspaper called Cardonga that was closed down in 2009, have been jailed since December 2010. According to Amnesty, they were convicted of "insulting symbols of the homeland" and sentenced to two and three years in jail, respectively. Their mother, a member of the Ladies in White dissident group, has also been subject to repeated brief detentions.
_ The group also took up the case of Yasmin Conyedo Riveron, another Ladies in White supporter, and her activist husband Yusmani Rafael Alvarez Esmori. Both were arrested in January in the central city of Villa Clara and charged with violence against a state official, which could earn them up to five years in jail. The case stems from a disagreement between Conyedo and a local female Communist Party official, according to Amnesty, which noted that even the official in question has asked authorities to drop the charges.
Last year, Cuba freed the last of 75 intellectuals, activists and social commentators locked up in 2003. The decision cleared Cuban jails of inmates Amnesty considered peaceful prisoners of conscience, though others remain behind bars for often violent, but politically motivated actions.
In January, Amnesty was on the verge of declaring a hunger striking Cuban inmate named Wilman Villar a prisoner of conscience when the man died in custody. Three other prisoners were released hours after Amnesty took up their cases.
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