Turks and Caicos frees Cubans who sewed their lips shut to protest detention

Authorities in the Turks and Caicos Islands have freed four illegal Cuban migrants who sewed their lips together to protest their six-month detentions in the British territory off Cuba’s eastern tip.

“We wanted political asylum here or to be free here. Or send us to a third country that will give us asylum. But what we want is that we will not be returned to Cuba,” Henry Olivera, 41, said Thursday after removing his stitches.

Clara Gardiner, in charge of the Ministry of Border Control and Labor in the British-run territory, confirmed the Cubans had been freed, with some granted asylum and others denied asylum but released on bond while they appeal.

Last Friday, four sewed their lips shut — a not uncommon practice by prison inmates in Cuba to highlight their protests — but they removed the stitches after learning of the decision to free them, Olivera said.

He told El Nuevo Herald that Miami relatives of the four men and one woman paid $12,000 a head to smugglers to pick them up in eastern Cuba and deliver them to Florida. Instead, the twin-engine speed boat dropped them off in the Turks and Caicos on July 22.

Olivera said the five went into hiding but were discovered by authorities on Oct. 5. Olivera, Lazaro Hidalgo, 27, and Norlan Alonso and Pedro Chacón, both 39, were sent to a detention center while Hidalgo’s wife, Meybis Vasquez, 23, went to live with a family after she miscarried.

Their protest came three weeks after 16 other illegal Cuban migrants disappeared from the Turks and Caicos, apparently aboard a speed boat, after a judge freed them from the detention center to await word on their asylum request. Twelve of the 16 later turned up in Miami, including the mother of Oakland A’s outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.

The Turks and Caicos Islands, about 250 miles northeast of Cuba and north of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, have become a stopover on the path of illegal migrants and drugs heading west to Florida, local authorities say.

Olivera and the three other men received word of the government’s decision to free them around the time Wednesday evening that America TeVe Channel 41 in Miami was broadcasting a report on their protest that showed them sewing their lips.

“It had to be done, brother, to force them to make a decision,” Olivera said. “This has been the biggest nightmare of my life.”

Gardiner’s statement, emailed to El Nuevo Herald, said the five Cubans were “not released as a result of their protest, but rather their application for asylum and the assessment thereof has been completed.”

“Three of them were determined to be in need of protection while two of them do not,” the statement said. Olivera said he and Alonso were denied asylum, but were not told why. None of the five held important jobs in Cuba, he added.

Gardiner said the three will be granted work permits if they find jobs in the Turks and Caicos, an offshore banking and tourism center of 40,000 people. The two others were given 15 days to appeal and were freed on bond.

“Should they not be successful, efforts will be made for their return to their home country,” she added.

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