By Dave Sherwood
HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba rejected on Tuesday accusations by rights groups and diplomats that its court system had unfairly jailed protesters following widespread unrest on the island in July, defending recent trials as just and in line with Cuban law.
The July 11-12 protests – the largest such rallies since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution – saw thousands take to the streets in towns and cities across the island. Many voiced anger at the communist-run government and shortages of food, medicine and electricity at a time when coronavirus cases had soared.
The protests were largely peaceful, although state media showed some demonstrators looting and throwing stones at police.
They were followed by a flurry of arrests. The Cuban prosecutor’s office said Tuesday it had thus far charged 710 people with crimes including vandalism, assault against people or property, and “grave public disorder.”
Human rights groups, the U.S. government and the European Union have slammed the trials of the protesters, saying they lack transparency and that long jail sentences were disproportionate with the crimes committed.
Cuba’s state prosecutor on Tuesday said those accusations were “manipulations of public opinion.” It said it had “verified compliance with the rights and constitutional guarantees of due process” under Cuban law.
“The right to defense was guaranteed, lawyers presented evidence and had access to the case files,” the office said in a statement.
The U.S. Embassy in Havana has for months called on Cuba to increase due process protections in the trials, tagging messages on social media with the hashtag “Prisoners, for what?”
Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez said on Twitter late on Monday that its northern neighbor and long-time rival was seeking to discredit Cuba.
“The U.S. is well aware that current legal processes in Cuba are conducted in full compliance with the law and internationally accepted standards,” Rodriguez said. “It lies to tarnish Cuba’s exemplary work in the protection of its children and justify criminal coercive measures.”
Nearly 70% of those accused are being held in detention as they await their trials, the prosecutor’s statement said, and 55 of the 710 facing charges are between the ages of 16 and 18.
Rights groups observing the process and advising those accused say penalties for dozens already sentenced, including for sedition, have ranged from four to 30 years behind bars.
The Cuban prosecutor said the penalties “correspond with the seriousness of the crimes, the level of participation (of the accused) and the damage caused to society.”
(Reporting by Dave Sherwood, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)