Cuba’s deadly justice

Bricklayer Orlando Zapata Tamayo didn’t commit murder. He didn’t plot an assassination or the violent overthrow of the government. He was arrested on March 20, 2003, in Cuba, while taking part in a hunger strike to demand the release of political prisoners, and was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of showing contempt for Fidel Castro as well as public disorder and disobedience, according to Amnesty International. Over the next six years, he is believed to have had eight more hearings and was convicted at least three more times, bringing his total sentence to about 36 years -- a figure his friends say may be inexact because the proceedings were secret. Now Zapata is dead after another hunger strike, this time for 85 days, to protest beatings and other prison conditions.

President Raul Castro should be ashamed. Instead, he is dismissive, asserting that Zapata’s death was the fault, somehow, of the United States -- because in the Cuban government’s view, all critics are proxies for U.S. subversion. Zapata was neither tortured nor executed, Castro reportedly said. “That happens at the Guantanamo base.”

That’s right, Mr. President, serious human rights abuses were committed against terrorism suspects held by the United States at the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, and they were vociferously denounced by people in this country who felt betrayed and dishonored by our government. But who in Cuba will be allowed to protest Zapata’s death? Who will be permitted to examine Cuban jails or challenge your assertion that torture does not take place there?

Amnesty International had counted 55 “prisoners of conscience” in Cuban jails -- make that 54 now. A Human Rights Watch report on Cuban prisoners last year documented how those who criticize the government or report violations are subjected to extended periods of solitary confinement and beatings and denied medical treatment, family visits and telephone calls. Human Rights Watch documented dozens of cases in which prison officials physically abused and humiliated political prisoners. Prison authorities routinely subjected them to solitary confinement in cells described as cramped, squalid, without bedding -- some in total darkness, others with permanent bright lights -- and provided rotting, inadequate food at irregular intervals.

That sounds like torture to us. And although Zapata may not have faced an executioner, he is dead for dissenting.