Cuban dissidents face trial, face years in prison News from politics

Two dissidents are facing the first day of their trial in Cuba after being arrested almost a year ago in what human rights groups have called a “farce” and a “circus”.

Police and security forces surrounded the Havana courthouse on Monday while a small group of family members were allowed entry to the courthouse, an official with Cuba’s International Press Center told Reuters.

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

Otero Alcantara, 34, faces charges of defamation of the national flag, contempt and public disorder and faces seven years in prison, according to a March 8 court filing seen 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 from several European countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Norway and Sweden, stood a block from the courthouse and waited for almost two hours to be admitted after requesting that the to enter and observe procedures.

“We were not authorized to enter the courthouse,” said a representative of the German embassy before leaving. The representative asked not to be named and declined to say why the group had been denied access to the courthouse.

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

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

The Cuban government did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on the trials or the reasons for restricting access to the courthouse.

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

The two men’s cases have become a lightning rod for activists and human rights groups who claim Cuba has stepped up repression following last year’s protests.

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

Cuba said those detained before and after the July protests received fair trials in accordance with Cuban law.

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

After his arrest last year, Otero Alcantara was also at the center of protests by other artists. He went on a hunger strike and was taken to hospital to demand the return of works confiscated by the authorities when he was arrested.

In a statement of support, about 20 other prominent artists demanded that their works be removed from the exhibition at the National Museum of Fine Arts, which turned down the call.

The streets outside the courthouse were otherwise quiet throughout the day on Monday. Several activists and friends of the men said on social media that they were being monitored by state security and were forbidden to leave their homes.

Maritza Herrera, 66, said she came to show her support for friends Otero Alcantara and Castillo. She said others were prevented from doing so or did not dare.

“They know that when they get here, they’ll put them in a squad car and take them to one [police] Train station. That’s not why they’re here,” she said.

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