Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Dissidents Call for Legal Moratorium

Dissidents Call for Legal Moratorium
Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Jun 28 (IPS) - Moderate dissidents in Cuba urged the government
of Fidel Castro to declare a legal moratorium on executions and
announced that a campaign would be launched this year to raise public
awareness on the issue.

Capital punishment has not been applied in this Caribbean island nation
since the April 2003 execution by firing squad of three Cubans who
hijacked a ferry carrying dozens of passengers, including several
foreign tourists, in an attempt to reach the United States. The
hijackers, who had threatened to kill their hostages, were executed
after a summary trial in which they were found guilty under a 2001 law
on terrorism.

"The time is right to move from a 'de facto' moratorium to a legal one,"
Manuel Cuesta Morúa told IPS, clarifying that he was speaking on behalf
of the Pro Human Rights Dialogue Coalition and not as the spokesman for
the Arco Progresista, which links groups with social democratic tendencies.

Both coalitions signed a statement earlier this month at the start of
the very first session of the new United Nations Human Rights Council,
which replaced the 60-year-old U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

Cuba is one of the 47 members of the new Council, which means --
according to the Jun. 19 communiqué issued by the dissident groups --
that it has assumed a commitment to effectively advance human rights
around the world.

Cuesta Morúa said "it is in this context that we are calling, among
other things, for a moratorium on the death penalty."

The groups' demands include a general amnesty for political prisoners
and the creation of national mechanisms aimed at guaranteeing respect
for human rights.

The Cuban government maintains that it has one of the cleanest human
rights records in the world and consistently refuted the criticisms of
which it was a target year after year in resolutions passed by the
now-defunct U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

But Cuba's socialist government does not recognise internal opposition
groups, which it accuses of being at the service of the United States.

According to Cuesta Morúa, however, authorities in Cuba are becoming
aware that the time is ripe for making decisions with regard to the
death penalty, although first "they must understand that the
justification of keeping it on the books for reasons of national
security no longer works."

He mentioned the cases of Salvadorans Raúl Ernesto Cruz León and Otto
René Rodríguez Llerena, who were sentenced to death for terrorism in 1998.

Cruz León and Rodríguez Llerena -- whose sentences are currently pending
a Supreme Court appeal -- took part in a series of bombings of tourist
facilities in Cuba. One of the explosions resulted in the death of an
Italian citizen, Fabio Di Celmo.

"The fact that the death penalty has not been applied in these cases
amounts to an admission that it does not work as a dissuasive element
against serious crimes," said Cuesta Morúa, who added that Cuba should
not "emulate" the United States, where capital punishment exists in a
number of states.

The activist announced that in November the Pro Human Rights Dialogue
Coalition plans to launch a campaign that will include "citizen debates"
to raise awareness on the issue, with the aim of gradually extending the
discussions throughout the entire country.

"That will be the step prior to collecting signatures for a petition to
be submitted to the National Assembly (the single-chamber legislature),
urging it to declare a moratorium on executions," said Cuesta Morúa.

The 2003 executions broke the de facto moratorium on capital punishment
in effect in Cuba since 2000.

But President Castro himself has not ruled out the possibility of
eventually abolishing the death penalty.

In a lengthy interview that Castro gave to journalist Ignacio Ramonet,
editor of the French publication Le Monde Diplomatique, the Cuban leader
said that he believed Cuba was gradually moving towards a future in
which the country would be in a position to abolish capital punishment.

A 700-page edition of the interview in Spanish began to be distributed
in Cuba last month. The book contains a number of references by Castro
to the issue of the death penalty, which is rarely discussed in Cuba.

Castro said capital punishment has not yet been abolished in Cuba
because the country is going through a very difficult period, people are
not yet totally prepared for that, and there are differences of opinion
with respect to how to deal with serious crimes committed by common

The leader said he believed it would take a while before capital
punishment would be eliminated for all kinds of crimes, and underlined
that his government has made no commitment to a definitive moratorium.

In Cuba's penal code, the death penalty is only used in "exceptional"
circumstances, but is applicable to a number of crimes if aggravating
factors are present. However, it cannot be applied in the case of people
under 20 or to women who were pregnant at the time the crime was
committed or when the sentence is handed down.

In practice, the death sentence has never been applied against a woman
since a 1959 law reinstated capital punishment.

Cuban law also stipulates that those convicted of a crime have the right
to appeal to the Supreme Court. If the sentence is upheld, it must then
be ratified by the Council of State (the highest government body), which
has the last word.

According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National
Reconciliation, an opposition group that has no legal status but is
tolerated by the Cuban government, there are currently 50 people in Cuba
facing the death penalty.


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