Trials Begin for Cuba Protesters without Defense Attorneys

“Summary” proceedings to sentence participants in the July 11th protests for crimes of inciting public disorder and crimes have started in Cuba, and defendants are being refused their right to have a defense attorney present.

The news emerged after the case of Anyelo Troya González went public, a Cuban visual artist and photographer who directed and recorded the music video for “Patria y Vida” in Cuba, alongside Maykel Osorbo, El Funky and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, in early 2021.

On July 11th, Anyelo was arrested when taking photos of the protests in Havana and was taken down to the police station at 100th and Aldabo streets, in the capital.

On July 20th, news got out that Troya González had been subjected to a summary proceeding, without a lawyer present to defend him. His mother, Raisa González Cantillo, reported that she had gone to the station at 100th and Aldabo streets in the morning that day, with a defense attorney, and when they got there, they were informed that the photographer had been transferred to the Court in 10 de Octubre for a summary proceeding.

By the time they reached the Court, the proceeding had come to an end, with no notice given to the family beforehand and without the defense attorney’s participation, whom they had hired for this end.

On July 21st, Troya González and the other 10 detainees were notified of the Court’s ruling. The visual artist was sentenced to one year in prison for “public disorder”, González Cantillo told Reuters news agency. Out of the 11 people taken to court for their hearing, only two were able to have a lawyer present.

This isn’t an isolated case. The Cuban government has decided to process hundreds of peaceful protestors with summary proceedings, a process that allows sentences to be ruled in less than 20 days for people who have been accused of crimes that do not exceed the sanction of one year in prison.

These express hearings against those arrested on 11J and afterwards is a mechanism that they have decided to make even harder with a lack of transparency in the way information of every individual case is handled. More and more relatives of detainees are coming forward with testimonies, like in Anyelo’s case, and Ministry of Interior officials purposely mislead them, misinforming or denying access to data –such as the number of the case files, dates and locations of the hearings.

While the Government’s official version of events states that nobody was missing, and that proceedings follow due diligence, the reality is that hundreds of people haven’t been located within the timeframe stipulated by the Law, nor have their whereabouts or the charges against them been revealed. The proof? Citizens’ initiatives have managed to draw up a list of at least 587 people who were arrested during the 11J protests and in the days following.

Initiatives put the spotlight on the hundreds of detainees & their families

Cuban civil society has articulated many different initiatives to follow, help and give visibility to the situation of hundreds of detainees and their families after the 11J protests.

In order to give detainees less protection, authorities are pressuring and hindering motions filed by lawyers belonging to the National Organization of Collective Law Firms (ONBC), the only institution through which a lawyer can represent citizens in legal procedures.

ELTOQUE Jurídico has been able to confirm pressure and threats to lawyers in Havana, Cienfuegos and Villa Clara, to stop them from representing people who have been charged for taking part in the protests; so, they can take them to secret trial without legal representation.

A source from a collective law firm in Playa municipality, in the capital, revealed that once a relative applies for representation for a detainee, they have to receive authorization from the ONBC Provincial Board and this entity has to then receive authorization from the National Board, providing the detainee’s information and charges, so that the decision about whether a lawyer can or cannot defend the detainee is made at that level.

So much bureaucracy just to slow down and drag out the appointment of a defense attorney in proceedings where the defense’s reaction time is key. It’s very likely that the trial is already underway or has finished by the time a lawyer has been appointed, such as in Anyelo Troya’s case.

Summary proceedings in Cuban legislation

In their effort to discredit the peaceful protests, Cuban authorities are charging detainees with the crimes of public disorder and incitement of a riot. In their most basic form, both of these can be taken to trial with a summary proceeding under Cuban law.

Summary proceedings are contemplated as “jurisdiction without action” trials in Cuban legal theory. These are trials where neither a district attorney or lawyer has to be present. Summary hearings are a total disadvantage for detainees, especially when they are being taken to trial for exercising a constitutional right, because they are kept silent. Not in the sense that they are unable to speak, but because holding the summary hearing without specialist expertise or the legal assistance of a professional, limits their chances of articulating an argument that places all of the focus on the illegitimacy of the trial.

Summary proceedings attack one of the basic safeguards of due diligence: the right to a defense. Defense is a universal right, which in the case of proceedings against the 11J protestors, can be restricted on two fronts.

During a summary proceeding, a lawyer cannot be hired until the date and time of the hearing has been established. Keeping this date –which is worked out between the Court and the Ministry of Interior– secret right up until the last moment, makes it harder for detainees or their families (if the former are being detained) from hiring a lawyer. Testimonies from family members confirm that this really is another one of the Cuban government’s repressive tactics used today.

Even if relatives are able to hire a lawyer in advance, it doesn’t stop a trial from going ahead. The lawyer must be present at the time the trial session begins in Court, because that’s when the judge must be informed that the lawyer will be representing the defendant. If the lawyer doesn’t make it in time to the hearing, their contract means nothing.

A summary proceeding was used to sentence rap singer Denis Solís in November 2020. Solís was sentenced to eight months in jail, within 72 hours of being arrested. One of the main arguments of those advocating for his release was that he was kept hidden away and was denied the chance to have a lawyer present at the trial against him. This is a fact that very few people mention today.

Denis Solis: a story of contempt and forced disappearances in Havana

Despite contempt being considered a crime in Cuba, a great deal of international Law and some of the most important international human rights organizations classify it as incompatible with freedom of speech. This crime was used to send a young critic of the Cuban government to jail.

Nevertheless, days later, Cuban legal authorities recognized that the entire proceeding against the rapper and San Isidro Movement member had been legal, via a judicial decree in which they rejected a habeas corpus presented in his favor. One of the arguments the judges used to determine the trial’s legitimacy was the fact that the day after his arrest, the Police had notified Denis Solís himself about the possibility of “naming a lawyer and presenting evidence at trial”.

That said, what good is it if they comply with the formality of notifying the detainee about the date of his trial and his ability to name a lawyer, if they then cut him off from the world? Does this formality make any sense when it isn’t offering a safeguard, because family and friends aren’t being informed about the accused’s situation?

Repression with violence is now “legal”

On July 20, 2021, the Cuban government’s strategy to legitimize repression began to materialize, which brutally unfolded on 11J. With “riots” (as the Cuban Ambassador called them) calmed down, the only thing left to do is to take everyone who took to the streets to shout “homeland and life” or incited others to stand with them in this action of being fed up, to court. The protests were the concrete expression of their dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

Part of the government’s strategy is to subject hundreds of detainees to express trials. Trials that will be held amidst chaos: hundreds of relatives going to detention centers and a society exposed to opposing narratives -official versions of transparency and respect for legal proceedings-, and concrete actions to hold the accused incommunicado at police stations. Such makes it easier for arbitrary and politically-motivated trials to go ahead, without warning.

The Cuban government has outlined what could be understood as a bidirectional strategy that legalizes, from a legal standpoint, the detention and repression of arrested protestors during and after 11J.

The hundreds of detainees will be separated into protestors connected to acts of “vandalism” and “violence” and protestors who peacefully took to the streets to exercise their legal right to protest. This division is only a methodological and procedural, because in the hearts of those who hold power in Cuba –and felt the real power of the people like never before– it’s just as much a crime to loot a store as it is to shout “homeland and life” on a public street.

Mostly from underprivileged and neglected groups in Cuban society, the “violent vandals” will not be taken to trial immediately. The serious crimes they are being charged with –an result in a 20-year jail sentence– and mean that the investigation can be extended to 60-180 days. During this time, they will remain in a provisional prison facility awaiting their trial.

Colonel Moraima Bravet announced this on the TV show Hacemos Cuba, on July 14, 2021. The head of Criminal Investigations at the Ministry of Interior (MININT) stated that they had received the indication from above to be strict. The MININT and the Attorney General’s Office together hold all of the power to determine how long a criminal investigation will go on for and when a detainee can or cannot await trial at home.

That said, the other group of Cubans who were arrested for taking to the streets and expressing themselves, for recording these expressions and, last but not least, exercising a right that doesn’t exist according to the Government, will be taken to trial with an express hearing. They will be taken to trial just like Anyelo Troya and another 10 Cubans were on July 20, 2021. They will be taken to trial just like 17-year-old Amanda Hernández Celaya will be on July 22nd, for recording the protests and repression with her cellphone.

* This text was originally published in El Toque

Eloy Viera Cañive Cienfuegos (1987). Law Degree (2011). Since his graduation and until 2016 he worked as a lawyer for the National Organization of Collective Law Firms (Organización Nacional de Bufetes Colectivos, ONBC). He has taught as an Assistant Professor of the Bachelor's Degree in Law at the University of Cienfuegos. Since 2017, he has promoted the Fundación Colectivo Más Voces. He has collaborated with several Cuban independent media, mainly El Toque where he coordinates the project El Toque Jurídico (elTOQUE Jurídico), dedicated to the legal education of the Cuban population.


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