Cuban dissident artists face trial, risk years in prison


Two dissident artists have undergone their first day of trial in Cuba after being detained nearly a year ago, in an ongoing legal process that human rights groups have labeled a “farce” and a “circus”.

Police and security forces surrounded the courthouse in Havana on Monday as a small group of family members gained access to the courthouse, an official from the Cuban International Press Center told Reuters news agency.

The activists, Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara and Maykel Castillo, are prominent members of the Havana-based San Isidro movement, an artists’ collective that led several protests before many of the group left Cuba, over alleged repression.

Otero Alcantara, 34, is charged with defamation of the national flag, contempt and public disorder, and faces seven years in prison, according to a March 8 court file reviewed by Reuters.

Castillo, 39, a rapper also known as Osorbo, has also been charged with assault and faces 10 years in prison, the court document shows.

The two men’s cases have become a lightning rod for activists and human rights groups [File: Mayela Lopez/Reuters]

Representatives from the Havana embassies of several European countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Norway and Sweden, huddled steps away from the courthouse for nearly two hours, awaiting entry after asking to enter and observe the procedure.

“We were not authorized to enter the courthouse,” a representative of the German embassy said before we left. The representative asked not to be named and declined to say why the group had been barred from entering the courthouse.

“We want human rights to be respected in all places and countries,” the diplomat said.

Both Otero Alcantara and Castillo appeared in the music video for “Patria y Vida,” a defiant hip-hop song that became the unofficial “anthem” for widespread anti-government protests that erupted in Cuba last July.

The Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request from Reuters for comment on the trials, or to say why access to the courthouse was being restricted.

Cuban state media, including the ruling communist party newspaper Granma, has accused the San Isidro movement of Castillo and Otero Alcantara of being part of a US-led “soft coup” – an accusation the group denies.

The two men’s cases have become a lightning rod for activists and human rights groups, who claim Cuba stepped up repression in the wake of last year’s protests.

Human Rights Watch called the trials a “farce” last week, while Amnesty International called them a “circus.”

Cuba has said those detained before and after the July protests have been given a fair trial in accordance with Cuban law.

According to an audio recording released by fellow activists on social media last week, authorities offered to release Otero Alcantara if he left the country, but he declined.

Otero Alcantara was also the center of protests from other artists after his arrest last year. He launched a hunger strike and was hospitalized to demand the return of works that authorities seized while he was being held.

In support, about 20 other prominent artists demanded that their works be removed from the exhibition at the National Museum of Fine Arts, which declined the appeal.

The streets outside the courthouse were quiet all day Monday. Several activists and friends of the men claimed on social media that they were under state security surveillance and were not allowed to leave their homes.

Maritza Herrera, 66, said she came to show her support to her friends Otero Alcantara and Castillo. She said others couldn’t, or didn’t dare.

“They know that when they get here they will be put in a patrol car and taken to a… [police] station. That’s why they’re not here,” she said.

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