Cuban authorities have acknowledged that more than 700 people, including dozens of teenagers, are facing criminal charges for last year’s anti-government protests.
In a statement released through Cuba’s official newspaper Granma, the public prosecutor’s office said on Tuesday that 790 people have been indicted “for acts of vandalism, which [were] attempted against authorities, persons and property, and severe disruptions of public order”.
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Of the nearly 800 people originally charged, 710 have been referred to trials with 172 already convicted, said the prosecutor’s office, which did not reveal details of the sentences against those found guilty.
It added that 55 of the defendants are between the ages of 16 and 18, noting that criminal law in Cuba does not apply to minors under 16.
Rare anti-government protests erupted across Cuba last July, with thousands taking to the streets to express frustration about the economic downturn and the raging COVID-19 pandemic.
Some demonstrators took direct aim at the government of President Miguel Diaz-Canel, chanting “down with the dictatorship” and “we want liberty.”
At the time, the Cuban government accused the United States of being behind the protests in an effort to “destabilise” the island nation.
Further demonstrations were planned in November, but the protest movement fizzled out amid heavy police presence in the streets.
Family members of demonstrators arrested last year said their relatives face the possibility of spending decades in jail for participating in the protests.
Emilio Roman, a 50-year-old Havana resident, told the Reuters news agency earlier this month that his two sons Emiyoslan, 18, and Yosney, 25, as well as his 23-year-old daughter, Mackyani, faced 15, 20 and 25 years in jail, respectively, if convicted.
All three have been detained since mid-July, Roman said. “Everyone went out because of the noise, as if they were going to have a party, but nobody thought they were going to act so severely,” he said.
“The number of years [in prison] they are seeking, it’s as if they were terrorists, murderers. They are my only three children.”
The public prosecutor said while sedition carries “severe penalties”, that corresponds with the “level of violence” demonstrated by defendants facing the charge.
The US government slammed Cuba on Tuesday for prosecuting minors.
“The world is witnessing the unconscionable sentences against peaceful and innocent youths,” the US embassy in Cuba said on Twitter. “They will not be able to crush the people’s demands for a better future. We are all listening to the families when they are speaking about these violations of justice.”
Cuba’s foreign ministry hit back with its own statement, pointing to alleged human rights abuses against children in the US, including the arrests of thousands of minors annually and the previous US administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their families at the southern border.
Last year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the Cuban government of “systematically” abusing detained protesters, including children under the age of 18.
“When thousands of Cubans took to the streets in July, the Cuban government responded with a brutal strategy of repression designed to instill fear and suppress dissent,” Juan Pappier, senior Americas researcher at HRW, said in a statement in October.
“Peaceful protesters and other critics have been systematically detained, held incommunicado and abused in horrendous conditions, and subjected to sham trials following patterns that indicate these human rights violations are not the actions of rogue agents.”