Cuban biologist Ariel Ruiz Urquiola wanted to start an eco-friendly project on his farm in Viñales, a mountainous region west of Havana. But now those plans are on hold because he was sentenced to one year in prison for “disrespecting” officials.
The alleged crime? He called a Forest Ranger a “rural guard.”
“We will appeal, but it's already clear they want to take away our farm. We will fight tooth and nail,” said Ruiz Urquiola's sister, Omara Ruiz Urquiola.
The 43-year-old biologist's troubles began several years ago at the University of Havana after he issued complaints against the fishing of endangered turtles. In 2016, he was expelled from the university. He then decided to launch an environmental project to preserve several species in Viñales.
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He leased lands from the state — which he could now lose if his one-year sentence is upheld.
Several members of the Forest Ranger agency, which is part of the Interior Ministry, turned up at the farm last Thursday to check on whether he had permission to cut down several palm trees and build a fence, and whether he legally owned his chain saws, said the sister.
She said he had all the permits required, and that the palms had been damaged by lightning and “were endangering our home there, which is made with palm fronds.”
At his trial Tuesday, testimony was presented stating that Ruiz Urquiola asked the Forest Rangers to follow him to the home, where he kept the required documents. Along the way, the biologist referred to the Rangers as “rural guards.”
“The prosecutor alleged that he had disrespected the Forest Ranger agency with the term, which referred to a repressive agency that existed before the [Castro] revolution,” biologist Elier Fonseca, who attended the trial, told el Nuevo Herald.
El Nuevo Herald tried unsuccessfully to telephone the police station in Viñales, where Ruiz Urquiola has been held since last week. He was transferred to the Pinar del Río provincial prison, his sister said.
Ruiz Urquiola, who had started a hunger strike on Saturday, decided to abandon it “because he realized that he has to stay strong, that he has to fight this,” said his sister.
The punishment for “disrespecting” authorities can range from a fine to one year in prison. Fonseca said that although Ruiz Urquiola was detained several times during a previous hunger strike — to demand medical treatment for his sister's cancer — “Ariel has no criminal record.”
Ruiz Urquiola and his family have been an uncomfortable presence for authorities in Viñales, a region favored by foreign tourists.
They have frequently denounced violations of environmental regulations near their farm in the Sierra del Infierno — a mountain range that in English translates to Mountains of Hell. Authorities did nothing about the violations, said Omara Ruiz Urquiola, but neighbors started to harass them, hurting their animals and damaging their crops. Two neighbors accused by the family of harassment were taken to court but were found not guilty.
“Ariel is a bothersome presence for authorities in the region,” said his sister. “One time, he collected 82 traps for hunting cane rats and took them to officials of the Viñales National Park — and they did nothing. They have invented all of this to get him out of there, to stop him from denouncing the abuses in the mountains.”
“Authorities in Viñales are used to doing anything they want without anyone challenging them,” said Havana opposition activist Claudio Fuentes, who recently interviewed the Ruiz Urquiola siblings for a video made public by the dissident group Estado de Sats. “Ariel, his friends and his family are kind of a monkey wrench that jammed the perfect functioning of corruption” in the region, he added.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concluded in 1995 that laws on “disrespect” are not compatible with the American Convention on Human Rights because they lend themselves to “abuse as a way of silencing unpopular ideas and opinions, thereby repressing the debate that is critical for the effective functioning of democratic institutions.”
The Commission also declared that those kinds of laws “provide a higher level of protection to public officials than to private citizens,” according to a report by the Organization of American States.
Article 144 of Cuba's penal code establishes that anyone who “threatens, slanders, defames, insults, injures or in any other manner abuses or offends, by word or in writing, the dignity or decorum of an authority, a public functionary or their agents or assistants, during the exercise of their functions or because of them, can be punished with imprisonment from three months to one year or a fine ... or both.”
The person accused does not need to have intended to offend, said Cuban attorney Laritza Diversent, who came to the United States as a refugee because of the harassment of Cubalex, a group that offers independent legal advice to people like Ruiz Urquiola. “It does not have to be an offensive phrase. If the official feels offended in any way, he can file charges.”
“Disrespect is a crime against freedom of expression,” said Diversent. “It's also a reprisal, to intimidate the population and avert criticisms of the authorities.”
The lawyer added that the brief trial for Ruiz Urquiola appeared to be a “summary trial” that had “no guarantees or the presumption of innocence. It's a formality.” She added that the participation of a prosecutor, which is optional in this type of trial, “indicates that there is a marked interest by authorities on the case.”
The Cuban Observatory for Human Rights, based in Madrid, denounced the arrest of the Cuban biologist before the United Nations official in charge of monitoring arbitrary detentions. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation in Havana recently reported 330 arbitrary detentions for political motives during the month of April alone.