Cuba: Head of Largest Dissident Group Still Missing After Violent Arrest of Wife, Children

Cuban opposition leader Jose Daniel Ferrer speaks during a press conference to present the ��Towards a national project, the minimum program�� in Havana on May 12, 2016. / AFP / YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images

The United Nations demanded in a letter Tuesday that the communist regime in Cuba reveal the whereabouts of José Daniel Ferrer, the head of the largest dissident group of the island, who has been missing since his October 1 arrest.

According to the letter, signed by a representative of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the government has not offered any proof of life or health for Ferrer since October 4. He disappeared from prison records at the facility holding him two weeks after his arrest; his family has not been able to find any proof that he is being held in any prison on the island.

Ferrer is the head of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), believed to be the largest pro-democratic dissident organization on the island.

Ferrer was arrested in his home in eastern Santiago de Cuba and told, according to wife Nelva Izmaray Ortega, that the government would fabricate criminal charges to keep him in prison if he insisted on continuing to demand the communist government respect the human rights of its people.

This weekend, Ortega and three of Ferrer’s children took the streets of Santiago to demand information on his status, resulting in a brutal beating and arrest by Cuban state agents.

The U.N. OHCHR issued a demand for “urgent action” Tuesday in response to a request from Cuban Prisoners Defenders, an organization that advocates for the rights of political prisoners on the island. The group published the letter in full on Twitter.

The OHCHR “has activated the procedure for urgent action, sending a note to the State party in which it expresses its grave concern for the physical and psychological integrity of Mr. José Daniel Ferrer García and has required urgent action by the State to seek and localize him,” the letter reads. It demands that Cuba give the family either confirmation of where Ferrer is and his health status immediately or, in the event that the state does not know where he is, adequately explain why it does not. The deadline given is November 12.

The letter notes that Ferrer was initially arrested and sentenced to 25 years in prison in the “Black Spring” repression of 2003, but ultimately freed after serving seven years. Since then, “Mr. Ferrer García has been arrested on over 100 occasions without charges, more than once a month in the past eight years.”

Government officials have not charged him with any crime, and there is no evidence that he committed any.

Adding to the illegitimate nature of the actions against Ferrer, the United Nations noted that Cuban police had threatened neighbors to “testify falsely against Mr. Ferrer García with the objective of creating a criminal cause of action against him.”

The U.N. also details that, following his disappearance from prison records, UNPACU allies filed a habeas corpus petition in the Cuban court system, but “the judicial response … did not offer freedom or any other information about the whereabouts of Mr. Ferrer García or the motives for his detention.”

Cuba is a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

His family is particularly concerned about his health status. Upon his arrest, Ferrer was receiving treatment for an ulcer and had an infected tooth, broken by a beating he received during his last arrest prior to his most recent one.

Ferrer’s last arrest occurred in September. UNPACU had planned a mass protest that month to observe the feast day of Our Lady of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba. As the group had branded the protest a “sunflower march,” urging members to use the flower as a symbol of peace, the Cuban government outlawed the sale of sunflowers prior to the scheduled date of the event. Police then began sweeping the homes of dissidents and preemptively arresting them. Police arrested dozens and vandalized their homes, in some cases looting their kitchens for hard-to-find items such as milk, cooking oil, or eggs.

Cuban officials also ransacked UNPACU’s headquarters in Santiago, stealing laptops and food items, in late August following the publication of a detailed list of political prisoners on the island by Cuban Prisoners Defenders, in cooperation with UNPACU.

Ortega, Ferrer’s wife, took tp the streets of Santiago on Friday along with two of Ferrer’s adolescent children – Fátima Victoria Ferrer Cantillo, 14, and José Daniel Ferrer Cantillo, 17 – and the couple’s four-month-old son Daniel José Ferrer Ortega holding signs demanding proof of life for the UNPACU leader. The group was protesting peacefully, without any disruption to pedestrian or other traffic, when Cuban state police arrived on the scene and pummeled Ortega and the two teen children.

“They twisted my arms, they put handcuffs on me, they tightened them very hard and punched me in the stomach so that I couldn’t speak or scream or do anything,” the younger José Daniel told Martí News, adding that they also attacked his sister leaving her bruised. All three were arrested.

Ortega said that, upon her arrest, officers told her, “Shut up, shut up, wait until we’re alone, we’ll take your son … and we’ll beat you so hard you’ll need therapy.”

The group spent hours in temporary detention and were released on Saturday after being publicly abused. Authorities did not file any charges against them. The incident was caught on video, published by UNPACU on Youtube.

The U.S. State Department has demanded Ferrer’s freedom.

“José Daniel Ferrer’s case is one more example of the Castro regime’s continuous and flagrant violation of human rights, which has recently escalated into a wave of repression against freedoms of speech, expression, and religion,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an October 18 statement. “The United States will not allow these abuses against the Cuban people to go unnoticed or unanswered. We will continue to increase sanctions and trade restrictions to diminish the resources available to the Cuban regime, which uses its income to suppress its own citizens and to prop up other regimes with shameful human rights records, including the former Maduro regime in Venezuela.”

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