Cuban-Americans in South Florida criticized the Bahamian government harshly Friday after it repatriated 24 Cuban migrants, including about eight offered asylum in Panama after accusing a guard of beating them at a Nassau detention center.
The 24 were bused to the airport and put aboard a plane bound for Cuba despite last-minute entreaties by U.S. government and other officials to delay the returns, said Ramón Saúl Sánchez, head of the Miami-based Democracy Movement.
Authorities in the Bahamas had could not be reached for comment but previously said that their country has an immigration agreement with Havana to repatriate any undocumented Cubans who do not qualify for political asylum.
The alleged abuses and plans for repatriations have heightened tension in South Florida, where Cuban groups called for tourist boycotts of the Bahamas, held hunger strikes and staged horn-honking protests around the Bahamian consulate.
Sánchez said the Democracy Movement would seek to accuse Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie in international fora of sending the migrants back to Cuba in order “to hide from public view those who were tortured in his country.”
It will also ask that the 24 Cubans repatriated be given protection and visas by Panama and other countries to resolve a humanitarian issue, he added.
Those repatriated Friday included eight involved in filming a cell-phone video showing an alleged guard at the Immigration Detention Center in Nassau kicking several detainees on the ground, he added. Panama had offered asylum to them and 11 others allegedly beaten.
Bahamas authorities claimed in July that the video was a fake. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Friday that U.S. State Department officials had told her that Nassau has now confirmed its veracity and removed the guilty guards.
“It is shameful that the Bahamian government would not even consider the humanitarian asylum offer made by the government of Panama,” added the Cuban-American Republican from Miami.
In much tougher language, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart branded the repatriation despite Panama’s offer of asylum as an “unconscionable” and “outrageous” act and an “utter disgrace and blight” on the Bahamas’ human rights record.
“I, and many in my community, will never forget the heartless betrayal of these freedom-seeking refugees,” he added. Nassau will have to “assume the responsibility for the abuses that they (the 24) will inevitably suffer.”
Sanchez, whose group has been in contact with the Cuban detainees by cell phone, said about 50 Cubans had been held in Nassau, most of them intercepted while trying to sneak into the United States. Three apparently lived in the United States and were suspected of people smuggling.
Bahamian officials have told another eight Cubans they will be repatriated within days, he added, likely including a group of seven that was intercepted recently and seemed willing to be returned home quickly, according to Sánchez. There has been no word on the fate of the rest.
Panama last week offered “territorial asylum” to 19 Cubans in Nassau, described by Sanchez was those most abused at the detention center and the Fox Hill prison. One was stabbed at the prison, according to a Panamanian list of the names obtained by El Nuevo Herald.
Foreign Minister Fernando Núñez Fábrega said the decision was made quickly due “to the dangers to the people,” and Guillermo Cochez former ambassador to the Organization of American States, was named as a special envoy to handle the case.
Christie initially agreed to allow the 19 to go to Panama, but changed tacks after Cuban government officials insisted that his government fulfill the bilateral agreement on repatriations, according to Cuban activists in Miami.
Nuñez said Friday in Panama that the Bahamian government could have waited on the repatriations because the 24 had the promise of asylum, but added the decision was up to Nassau.
The Cuban detainees’ status was to have been discussed Monday at a meeting of Cochez, Bahamas Foreign Affairs and Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell, Miami lawyer Lorenzo Palomares and Miami banker Raymond Molina. It is not clear whether the meeting will go ahead as planned.
Detainees at the immigration detention center in Nassau — Cubans but also Haitians, Brazilians, Colombians, Chinese and others trying to reach the United States — have long complained about guard abuses, health conditions and the food there.
“The callous, brutal and inhumane treatment that Cuban freedom seekers receive at the hands of Bahamian prison guards has been known for some time. I have brought up this abuse with Bahamian and U.S. authorities on prior occasions and the Bahamians always denied it,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
“I will continue to press the Bahamian government that it must cease the deplorable detainment conditions under which Cubans are not fed adequately nor treated humanely (and) it must honor the generous asylum protections offered by third countries, such as Panama,” she added.