José Daniel Ferrer, the man behind Cuba’s largest opposition group
José Daniel Ferrer, the leader of the largest dissident organization in Cuba, has been held incommunicado since his detention on Aug. 3, according to family members. Cuban authorities have accused him of “attempted murder” against a Ministry of Interior official, a charge activists denounce as “totally fabricated” and a “farce.”
“José Daniel is still incommunicado, we do not know where he is, nobody has been able to see him,” said Carlos Amel Oliva, a youth leader at the Patriotic Union of Cuba (known by the Spanish acronym UNPACU), based in Santiago de Cuba on the southeast coast of the island.
The Santiago de Cuba attorney’s office accused Ferrer and Ebert Hidalgo Cruz of trying to run over Dainier Suarez Pagán, the Interior Ministry official. Hidalgo usually serves as Ferrer’s driver. However, on this day, Ferrer was practicing his driving skills when the car struck the official.
Even though minor injuries in the arm resulted from the incident, according to official documents, the prosecution went after “attempted murder” charges and the two men were jailed. Hidalgo was released on Saturday, with no official explanation, he told el Nuevo Herald.
Cuban law essentially functions under the premise of guilty until proven innocent. So prosecutors, not judges, have the authority to order temporary detentions when an alleged crime has occurred. According to a document signed by prosecutor Rolando Reyes, “there are sufficient reasons to assume that the defendant is criminally responsible, given the circumstances of the incident and the personality of the participants.”
Ferrer, who does not have a driver’s license, was behind the wheel in Palmarito de Cauto, a town near Santiago de Cuba, when the ministry official threw himself in front of the car to cause the accident, said Nelva Ortega, Ferrer’s spouse. Ortega said she witnessed the incident.
“When we ran to get there, [the officer] was already on his feet and riding his motorcycle,” Ortega said.
According to the prosecution’s document, Suarez received a “severe blow that caused him to have abrasions on his right forearm and lower back and a hematoma on his right forearm.”
Hidalgo corroborated Ortega’s version of the incident, saying that the car barely touched Suarez.
Hidalgo, who has been a member of the UNPACU for a year, said authorities released him on Saturday without explanations or documents, despite being accused of the same crime as Ferrer. Hidalgo said he received psychological abuse during the days he spent in a “punishment cell, dark, with mice, mosquitoes and cockroaches.”
Cuban law establishes fines and up to several months in prison for drivers who cause slight injuries to other people.
Oliva, the UNPACU youth leader, said that the accusation was “totally a fraud and a farce,” and that Ferrer has been framed by the government. In recent telephone interviews with el Nuevo Herald, Oliva has detailed the actions of the government to impede the work of the organization, including “the masking of political persecution through the fabrication of common crimes” against its coordinators.
The authorities “detain the activists when they are trying to get to a meeting or when they are distributing pamphlets and fine them. When the activist refuses to pay the fine as a matter of principle, then they accuse him of resisting authority or of public disorder,” Oliva said.
The strategy has already been used to squelch the movement in several towns in eastern Cuba and other provinces such as Camaguey and Artemisa. The number of political prisoners from UNPACU currently stands at 54, according to Oliva.
He also said that several witnesses had been pressured to change their statements about the incident involving Ferrer and Hidalgo.
Ferrer was one of the 75 dissidents arrested during the so-called “black spring” in 2003 for being one of the main promoters of the Varela Project, a citizens’ petition drive to change the Constitution. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison and released on parole in 2011. Upon his release, Ferrer created UNPACU. Activists from the organization frequently publish videos on its YouTube channel with complaints from the population.
Recently, Ferrer and UNPACU had been involved in the campaign for an independent plebiscite known as Cubadecide.
His detention has generated concern from international organizations, governments and activists. Three UNPACU activists, including Ortega, are on a hunger strike calling for his release, Oliva said. Several organizations, including Encuentro Nacional Cubano and Justicia Cuba, have called for his release, and several activists have used the #FreeFerrer tag to show their solidarity on Twitter.
The State Department also requested that the government of Cuba supply information on where Ferrer is detained and called for the release of all political prisoners.
Amnesty International, which declared Ferrer a prisoner of conscience when he was arrested in 2003, asked Cuban authorities to grant him access to a lawyer and allow his family members to visit him.
“At a time when Cuba’s new government initiates legal and constitutional reforms, it must demonstrate to the world that it will fulfill its obligations to guarantee human rights and due process for all Cubans, including the most critical voices in the country,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres