Freedom of Expression

Press Release R152/18

The Office of the Special Rapporteur Expresses Concern over Criminal Convictions for desacato laws in Cuba

July 17, 2018

Washington D.C. - The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its deep concern over the application of desacato laws, followed by imprisonment, against the Doctor of Biological Sciences, Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, in Cuba. The aforementioned adds to the conviction of Eduardo Cardet Concepción, coordinator of the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL, by its Spanish acronym), who has been in prison for more than a year.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur warns about the increased criminalization of scholars, journalists, artists and activists, through the application of crimes that sanction criticism of public officials in Cuba. In many of these cases, the proceedings involve the immediate deprivation of liberty of those who express opinions, information, or criticism, on topics of public interest, or that refer to government officials.

According to the information available, on May 8, Ariel Ruiz Urquiola was sentenced to one year of detention by the Municipal Court of Viñales, in a summary trial, for the application of desacato laws. This decision was confirmed on May 22 on appeal by the First Criminal Chamber of the Popular Provincial Court of Pinar del Río. On July 3, the biologist was released under an "extra-penal license" for health reasons, after he went on a 16-day hunger and thirst strike to protest his situation.

According to information of public knowledge, on May 3, members of the Forest Ranger Agency, which is part of the Interior Ministry, entered the lands that Ruiz Urquiola had leased in usufruct to the State in the Viñales National Park, in order to request that he showed them the ownership of his work instruments and the legal permits for the activities that would be carried out. According to the information, the officials had refused to show official identification, reason why the biologist referred to them as "rural guards," a term that in the country would have a negative connotation. On the same day, occurred the application of desacato laws, followed by imprisonment, against Ruiz Urquiola, for allegedly insulted the Rangers.

Previously, in 2016, Ruiz Urquiola had been expelled from the Center for Marine Research (CIM, by its Spanish acronym) of the University of Havana, allegedly for his political opinions and for having denounced in an academic event in 2008, through the results of his doctoral research, that the government allowed the fishing of endangered turtles.

Moreover, the Office of the Special Rapporteur was informed that Martha Sánchez González, a member of the group Damas de Blanco would remain in custody since March 2018, charged with disobedience and insulting the authority.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur notes with concern that in Cuba the application of desacato laws in these cases is not an isolated incident. In Cuba, criminal law and the application of desacato laws are used as mechanisms of subsequent responsibility to the detriment of people who disseminate ideas, opinions and critical information towards the government. In this regard, it was reported that Eduardo Cardet Concepción, coordinator of the Movimiento Cristiano Liberación (MCL, by its Spanish acronym), would remain in custody following a conviction in March 2017 for the crime of attacking the authority. According to the information, Cardet Concepción was arrested on November 30, 2016, a few days after the death of Fidel Castro, after allegedly criticizing the former Cuban President in an interview, in the so-called period of national mourning imposed by the Cuban government. On February 24, 2018 [only available in Spanish], the IACHR granted precautionary measures in his favor requesting the Cuban government to adopt the necessary measures to guarantee his life and personal integrity.

Since its creation, the Office of the Rapporteur has examined the problem of desacato laws because of the danger that they could become a mechanism to stifle pluralistic and democratic debate on the government administration. In this regard, the Office of the Special Rapporteur has held on several occasions that "desacato laws are not compatible with the Inter-American Human Rights System, as they violate the freedom of thought and expression set forth in Articles IV of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and 13 of the American Convention. These norms lend themselves "to abuse, as a means to silence unpopular ideas and opinions, thereby restricting the debate that is critical to the effective functioning of democratic institutions."

The Office of the Special Rapporteur notes that in most of the American States, desacato laws for offenses have been eliminated from criminal legislation. Likewise, in different States laws that criminalize defamation of public officials had been repealed or modified. In this way, this Office calls on the Cuban State to adapt its legal framework to the Inter-American standards on freedom of expression.

Finally, the Office of the Special Rapporteur reminds the Cuban government that principle 11 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression establishes that "public officials are subject to greater scrutiny by society. Laws that penalize offensive expressions directed at public officials, generally known as ‘desacato laws,’ restrict freedom of expression and the right to information."

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is an office created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in order to stimulate the hemispheric defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression, considering its fundamental role in the consolidation and development of the democratic system.