A 17-year-old girl sentenced to eight months of house arrest for having witnessed protests in Cuba on July 11 told the independent outlet Cubanet in an interview this week that police forced her to strip naked and threatened to subject her to rape by two large men.
Gabriela Zequeira Hernández was on her way back home from the hairdresser in her native Havana when she noticed what she described as the largest crowd of people she had ever seen in her life. On July 11, Cubans nationwide took to the streets of nearly every major city in the country demanding an end to the communist regime. The protests reportedly attracted thousands of people, the vast majority marching peacefully through main streets and into central plazas calling for the communist regime to step down, and represented the largest nationwide simultaneous protest in recent memory.
Police arrested Zequeira and branded her a “counterrevolutionary” for being near the vicinity of protests. Zequeira — and her mother, who insisted for days during her daughter’s arrest that the girl did not intend to participate — said she attempted to explain to police repeatedly that she did not even know what the assembly she was viewing was for. She also repeatedly told police she was underaged, she asserted, but was told she was only technically underage “for some things,” without elaborating.
Zequeira’s mother did not know of her whereabouts between Sunday, July 11, and that Tuesday. Police initially sentenced Zequeira to eight months in prison for “public disorder” but reduced the sentence to house arrest following international condemnation for the violation of human rights that her case represents.
Zequeira recounted her experience to Cubanet, pausing on some occasions to express shame at describing the comments police made to her and crying when remembering the first moment she saw her mother again after being arrested.
“When I was on the way back from the hairdresser home … I got so surprised; I’m 17 and I’d never seen a protest so big, such a big crowd of people … the officials got me,” Zequeira explained. “They assaulted me, they grabbed my arm, manhandling me; they stuffed me in the police car like I was anything. I asked them in the car, ‘Why am I here? I’m 17.'”
“They told me, ‘This is so you know you can’t be protesting against YOUR revolution. You are a counterrevolutionary,'” she recalled.
Once sent to a jail cell, an official told her, the girl relayed, that her mother was at the station. At the time, Zequeira noted, police had not notified her mother of the arrest and she was not present at the police station.
“A woman officer told me, ‘Your mother is waiting for you here’ — which my mother didn’t even know — your mother is waiting for you here, which I cried from how impotent I felt — ‘Your mother is waiting for you here with a stick to beat you for being such a counterrevolutionary.'”
Police told her the next morning to pack her things and prepare to go home, as she was being released. This, too, Zequeria said, was a lie: police instead bussed her to 100 y Aldabó, one of Havana’s most notorious prisons. The facility has for decades had a reputation of being a central hub of torture and abuse of anti-communist dissidents.
“They took me to the dressing room and told me ‘take your clothes off, take your shirt off,'” Zequeira explained. “They searched my bra looking for wires. I don’t know why they had to do that. I kept telling them I was a minor … and they didn’t listen.”
“Then they told me ‘take off your shorts and your panties,'” she continued. “I took off my shorts and underwear, and there they told me to cough, to squat and squeeze the lower part of my torso. They told me to stick my finger inside me to see if I was carrying anything. I told them I was a minor; they couldn’t do that.”
“They told me, ‘you’re a minor for some things, but not others. Right now, you are of age,'” Zequeria said.
The teen girl added that, while in her prison cell, officials came into her cell and threatened to have two men rape her. She noted that they told her they would send her “to the pavilion,” which she assumed meant they would beat and torture her, but relatives explained when she recounted the story at home that the prison slang term actually refers to “sexual relations.”
“One of the most unpleasant moments I had … they came into my cell and said they were going to get a guy named ‘Hose’ and a guy named ‘Sledgehammer’ and take me out to the ‘pavilion,'” Zequeira told Cubanet, expressing clear embarrassment while retelling the story. “That ‘Hose’ was a mulatto guy, strong, with a not that big … thing but more or less. And Sledgehammer was a black man, strong, very big, who did have it big. He told me laughing.”
“They just explained to me now that I got out that ‘pavilion’ is to go have sexual relations,” she said.
Zequeira emphasized that, while she did not initially intend to protest, she now supported the movement against the regime.
“I want to send a message to all these minors, all these women, the mothers, too, like mine: keep struggling … the mothers, keep struggling so that they free all these women that have nothing to do with this,” she said. “It’s an injustice — even if you had done it [protested] — it feels like in the entire world there is freedom of expression and everything you say is respected. Here, it is not respected.”
At press time, international human rights groups have documented at least 740 people nationwide missing or in police custody for protesting since July 11. Experts on human rights in Cuba caution that the number is likely significantly smaller than the true toll and that thousands may be missing or imprisoned, many unreachable from abroad because of the large number of protests against the regime in the remote interior of the country. Among them, international groups have confirmed at least a dozen cases of imprisoned minors. Foreign Ministry Bruno Rodríguez initially denied that police had arrested any children during the protests last week, but his remarks occurred after Attorney General Yamila Peña had already told reporters, “there have been some minors; it is under investigation.”