Cuban government agents arrested the wife and three children of José Daniel Ferrer, the head of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) dissident group, on Monday for demanding a government-mandated routine visit with the democratic activist, arrested after planning a peaceful protest in October.
Wife Nelva Ortega has not seen Ferrer since early November, despite the government claiming they are adhering to international human rights norms in keeping him behind bars. The last time Ortega had access to her husband, she found him “looking like an old man” and threatening to go on hunger strike because guards were feeding him fecal matter.
UNPACU is Cuba’s largest dissident group, active throughout the island in organizing peaceful protests demanding elections and a fair democratic process on the island, ruled for over 60 years by the communist Castro dynasty. Ferrer’s October 1 arrest followed the organization of UNPACU rallies around the country in observance of the feast day of Our Lady of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba.
Ortega and three of Ferrer’s children – José Daniel Ferrer Cantillo, 17, Fátima Victoria Ferrer Cantillo, 14, and Daniel José Ferrer Ortega, 5 months – along with activist Ebert Hidalgo Cruz, arrived Monday at the Aguadores prison where authorities claim they are holding Ferrer and demanded to see him. Prisoners nominally have the right to regular visits if not considered high-risk. In a video UNPACU posted to Youtube, Ortega describes how guards greeted the group with abuse, rejected their demands, and ultimately arrested them and left them far from both the prison and their homes, with no way of getting back.
“From the moment we arrived, they denied our visit. They reminded me that, for one year, I am banned from entering the prison and that Fátima Victoria, since she is 15, couldn’t go in either,” Ortega said. “In three days, we could return and José Daniel could see his father.”
“As a family, we decided that either we all go in, or none of us go,” Ortega added, noting that they decided to camp out in front of the prison to demand their rights.
“They threatened us with repression … at about 7 p.m., we were detained by force and taken,” she concluded. “In the case of Fátima, my baby, and I, in a bus and José Daniel and Ebert in a police car. They took us to the city, kilometers from the headquarters. By our own we got here.”
Ortega noted that they violently tossed her into the bus used to expel her, with no regard to the safety of the infant in her hands. She argued that the denial of visitation rights proves that government claims that Ferrer is being cared for in accordance with human rights law is a lie.
Ferrer has been imprisoned for 56 days, missing for two weeks before the final visit Ortega received in early November. Prior to that visit, Ortega and the children organized a peaceful public protest in the streets of eastern Santiago de Cuba to demand proof of life for her husband. The protest ended when Castro agents violently assaulted the group in public, filmed by fellow dissidents and posted on social media.
The government has posed no formal charges and the family has no indication of a potential hearing to formalize the process.
According to Cuban Prisoners Defenders, an organization that helps prisoners of conscience on the island, Ferrer told Ortega during their last visit that guards “were supplying dirty and/or semi-fecal, fetid and pestilent waters for drinking, and spoiled food that were causing him acute heartburn.” Ferrer was suffering from an ulcer when he was arrested. He said he had been on hunger strike for a month already at the time of the visit.
The official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, Granma, claimed in an article last week that Ferrer is “a salaried agent of the United States with a long history of provocative actions, disruption of public order, and violations of the law.”
“The United States government has been conducting a new slander campaign to discredit Cuba, as part of its policy of increased hostility toward our country … Being used as a pretext is the arrest of counter-revolutionary José Daniel Ferrer,” the article claims.
The article claimed Ferrer was arrested for abducting an unnamed Cuban citizen and “giving him such a severe beating that his subsequent hospitalization was required.” It offered no evidence for the claim, nor did any indication of such an assault exist in public before the Granma piece alleged it.
Any information claiming Ferrer is suffering from abuse in prison, Granma concluded, is an American “lie”:
Ferrer is awaiting trial. He has received a visit from his wife and children, as appropriate in accordance with Cuban regulations on such legal situations. All references to his physical disappearance, to alleged physical abuse, to torture, or insufficient food, are absolutely false, lies deliberately conceived and disseminated by the United States government and its embassy in Havana. He has received proper medical assistance, performs regular physical exercises and, upon request, is provided religious attention.
“Clearly there is sufficient evidence of his crimes,” the newspaper concluded.
The American Department of State categorically denied the Cuban regime’s allegations.
“The U.S. government strongly condemns the Castro regime’s accusations against our Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Mara Tekach,” the State Department said. “The regime has launched these baseless allegations against her in an attempt to distract the international community from its abysmal treatment of the Cuban people, especially the ongoing arbitrary detention of dissident José Daniel Ferrer.”