Cuban Rights Crackdown, Psychiatric Abuses Told

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Times Staff Writer

The Cuban government has launched a new crackdown against human rights activists and for the first time stands accused of using electric shock treatments and psychoactive drugs against forcibly hospitalized political prisoners, according to leaders of the country’s two major human rights groups.

After more than a year of grudging official tolerance of the groups, beatings, arrests and surveillance of human rights workers have accelerated since mid-September, said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, and Sebastian Arcos Bergnes, vice president of the Cuban Human Rights Committee.

At the same time, Sanchez and Arcos charged in separate interviews, widespread rights abuses, including at least one unprovoked police killing of a minor offender, have again increased under the regime of Fidel Castro.


The leaders of the groups, which are technically illegal, called the crackdown “renewed repression” and said that, ironically, the beginning of the trend coincided with a 10-day investigation last September by a delegation from the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

The U.N. commission’s visit had aroused hope among many observers for a further easing of government pressure against dissidents. A formal report of the inquiry has not yet been written, but members of the U.N. group had been quoted as reporting that they found fewer rights abuses in Cuba than they had expected.

The charges of psychiatric abuse against political prisoners, once common in the Soviet Union but never before reported in Cuba, came from both human rights groups, acting independently. Each said it had forwarded its information to the U.N. commission and to independent rights groups such as Americas Watch and Amnesty International.

Arcos said the best-documented case is that of Jesus Leyva Guerra, an activist member of his human rights committee, who has been held since July 14 at a psychiatric hospital in Santiago de Cuba, on the island’s southeast coast.

He said that Leyva, about 40, was given a series of six shock treatments shortly after being detained and hospitalized and another series of six in December. Afterward, Leyva reportedly was so disoriented that he did not even recognize his wife. The last treatment was so excessive, according to Sanchez, that it left Leyva with electrode burns on his temples.

“He isn’t sick,” Arcos declared. “They used these medical things to destroy his mind.”

Sanchez noted that when human rights groups and Leyva’s wife protested, the authorities responded that Leyva was “crazy” and that they were trying to cure him.


“We think when he leaves the hospital he will be worse,” Sanchez said. Both Arcos and Sanchez displayed documents from Leyva’s wife to support their charges.

A Cuban government official, asked to comment on the charges, responded by shrugging his shoulders and rolling his eyes, then warned that it was dangerous for foreign journalists to interview the human rights dissidents without first advising the government. The groups are under constant surveillance and any contact they make with foreign correspondents is quickly reported, he said.

A second case cited by Sanchez was undocumented, but he repeatedly stressed that it was authentic, based on interviews by monitors from his human rights group with another man who underwent the same treatment. He said the man, named Quesada, was released several months ago after being confined in one of two police-controlled pavilions at Havana’s main psychiatric hospital.

“Before, he was completely sane,” Sanchez said. “Now he is not the same man. In the psychiatric hospital he received massive electric shocks and psychoactive drugs.” Psychoactive drugs, which are drugs designed to have a specific effect on the brain, could be used to tranquilize or otherwise alter prisoners’ behavior.

Sanchez said Quesada had been too affected by the treatment to talk with a foreign journalist.

‘Out of Control’

He said the hospital’s two pavilions are under the strict control of the Interior Ministry, adding: “Usually the political police hospitalize dissidents in those pavilions. What occurs there is out of all democratic or humanitarian control.”


With Sanchez during a recent interview was 24-year-old Jose Luis Alvarado, who charged that he had been given shock treatment and heavy doses of psychoactive drugs in 1980 and 1982 at one of the pavilions while under sentence for attempting to leave Cuba.

“The first time I was given two sessions (of electric shock), and the second only one,” Alvarado said. “I also had to take psychopharmic drugs three times daily, and so did the others. There were about 100 prisoners in the pavilion. They used the psychiatric hospital to destroy the will of the person.”

The two human rights officials described dozens of recent arrests, beatings and public clashes with police to underscore their belief that a new campaign against them is under way.

Attempts to silence the human rights groups eased in 1987 after Castro bowed to pressure from international human rights groups and a U.N. campaign led by the United States. He released hundreds of political prisoners and permitted leaders of the fledgling organizations to meet with visiting human rights workers, diplomats and journalists.

“Right now, there is more repression than in 1987 when the level--in terms of brutal violations of human rights--began to decline,” Sanchez said. “Together with that decline came the flowering of the human rights groups, which continued until the arrival of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in September. During the visit, and above all after they left the country, there has been an increase in repression.”

Sanchez and Arcos cited week-by-week chronologies of reported human rights violations during and since the U.N. commission’s visit. More than 20 persons were arrested during the visit for attempting to talk with U.N. investigators, they said, and at least 10 of the 80 to 100 people who were actually interviewed by the U.N. team were later arrested.


Since then, the rights leaders charged:

-- Six artists and writers from a group favoring artistic freedom were beaten and arrested when they attempted to place flowers at a downtown Havana monument to Jose Marti, the 19th-Century revolutionary poet revered as the father of Cuban independence. Five more members of the group, called Pro-Arte Liberal, were later taken into custody.

-- Two leaders of a political offshoot of Arcos’ group, the Cuban Human Rights Party, also were jailed.

-- Dozens of youths calling for greater freedom and more leisure activities for young people were attacked by plainclothes policemen when they marched through downtown Havana last Oct. 23. “It was almost a street battle,” Arcos said, adding that all but one of 36 youths arrested that day were teen-agers.

-- In ensuing months, dozens more have been taken into custody and charged with civil offenses such as disorderly conduct for marching in demonstrations in at least three provinces outside the capital.

Although Cuba had charged such suspects with political crimes against the state until about two years ago, all the recent detainees have been sentenced or fined for civil offenses, Arcos and Sanchez said. This permits the government to deny that anyone is being held for political crimes, they charged.

As part of a long list of other rights abuses, Arcos accused a Havana policeman of murder in the shooting death of a 25-year-old street salesman named Pedro Ortega Concha, who was peddling homemade plastic bottle caps, an illegal capitalist enterprise in Communist Cuba.


“The policeman asked him to hand over the bottle caps and, when he refused, shot him in the liver,” Arcos said. “He died in a few minutes. The policeman is still working.”

Another youth was shot when a group of policemen stormed a Havana bus station looking for the person who scrawled “Down With Castro” on a wall, Arcos said.

Perhaps because of such responses by police, there are few such public manifestations of anti-Castro feeling here. But a number of young people in the capital have been laughing lately over apparently spontaneous outbursts of a popular song when Castro has appeared on the screen at local movie houses. The song: “That Man Is Crazy.”

Despite the apparent rights crackdown, Cuba is meeting pledges made over the past year to release hundreds of political prisoners, according to American officials who monitor the situation here. They said that of the 450 prisoners Castro promised he would release, 250 are now free, most of them living as refugees in the United States. The promise was made last May to New York’s Cardinal John J. O’Connor during the Roman Catholic prelate’s visit to Cuba.