FoRB on the Frontlines: Fighting for freedom as long as it’s necessary

The Ladies in White are a Cuban peaceful protest movement comprising the wives and other female relatives of jailed dissidents. Last year CSW interviewed their leader, Berta Soler, about her experiences, and the challenges facing Cuba:

“My activism really got started in 2003 when the government took [imprisoned] 75 men and one woman just because they defended the Declaration of Human Rights.

I and the other Ladies in White are women who are prepared, very well prepared, and aware that we are in a struggle for the freedom of political prisoners and for respect for human rights in my country. And we, the Ladies in White and I, are very conscious that in my country we need freedom and rights, especially for the men and women who are in prison just for demanding this and promoting and defending the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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Guilty by Association: Increased Targeting of Family Members in Cuba

The Cuban government has a long-standing policy of targeting the children and other family members of church leaders and activists who it deems to be a problem; one of many tactics designed to ratchet up the pressure on them.

Religious leaders are increasingly standing up to government pressure and becoming bold in their efforts to defend religious freedom in the country, as the Cuban government’s Office for Religious Affairs (ORA) cracks down on unregistered religious groups and other groups that it perceives to be unsupportive of the government.

CSW’s latest report on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Cuba reveals that the death of Fidel Castro in November 2016 failed to mark any significant improvements to FoRB in Cuba; instead, the arbitrary detention, harassment, restriction and surveillance of religious leaders and adherents has continued throughout the first half of 2017, as has the confiscation of church properties. In addition, several cases of family members of church leaders and activists singled out for harassment and discrimination have been brought to CSW’s attention in recent months.

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The Courage of Cuba’s Ladies in White

Ladies in White

Ladies in White

Every Sunday Cuba’s Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco, in Spanish) have been forcibly and often violently prevented from attending Sunday morning services. Every Sunday since the group was formed in 2003, the women attend (or at least attempt to attend) Sunday Mass dressed in white to symbolise peace and walk through the streets in silent protest afterwards.

The Ladies in White movement was formed in response to the Black Spring in 2003 – a mass crackdown by the Cuban government on dissidents and journalists. Since 2010, all of the Black Spring prisoners have now been released. However, political prisoners remain in Cuba and the Ladies in White, a movement largely comprised of wives and other female relatives of former and current political prisoners remain active.

As the world marks International Women’s Day on 8 March, CSW commends their courage and peaceful protest, which saw them awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2005.

Weekly crackdown on the right to worship

On Sunday 1 February 2015, a member of the group, Mayelin Pena Bullain, was detained, beaten, kicked in the chest by a security agent in Mayabeque province and then imprisoned for the duration of Mass.

Individual cases of this kind number in the thousands. Arbitrary detentions like this are a weekly occurrence and similar incidences of harassment, threat and violence against the women have also been documented. While many women are detained in prison cells or at police stations during Mass, others have been handcuffed and kept in hot cars in the sun for up to six hours. In many cases, following detention, women are dropped off in remote locations forcing them to find their way home.

From 19 to 22 September 2015, 116 members of the Ladies in White were arrested and detained across the country, presumably to stop them from travelling to attend the activities around Pope Francis’s visit to the country. His visit to Cuba and the associated religious activities were not exempt from the government’s attempts to separate members of independent civil society from bodies of faith.

These incidences are indicative of how the government has extensively sought to prevent Cubans from exercising their right to worship. The government is particularly concerned with separating those it views as political dissidents from communities of faith as part of a more general policy of social isolation.  In 2015, the scope of those who have been targeted in Saturday night and Sunday morning police sweeps expanded to include other individuals associated with independent civil society, including human rights and democracy activists. Each weekend the authorities either block targeted individuals in their homes or detain them without charges – sometimes violently.

An unprecedented spike in FoRB violations

The backdrop to the arrests and detentions of the Ladies in White is an unprecedented crackdown on the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Cuba in 2015. During 2015, CSW recorded over 2,300 separate violations, some involving entire churches and others, in the case of arrests, dozens of victims. For the first time in four years, a church leader was sentenced to and served six months in prison for holding unauthorised religious services. It is a crackdown that continued through 2016 and into 2017.

In the weekly Sunday arrests, the majority of those targeted are Roman Catholic and members of the Ladies in White. Yet every week the Ladies in White peacefully defy the state by attending Mass knowing they may be harassed, beaten and arbitrarily detained.

Today we commend the Ladies in White’s persistent protest in the face of adversity and stand in solidarity with them in calling for the freedom of political prisoners in Cuba and for the freedom of all Cubans to assemble and worship without harassment or arrest.

By Claire Denman, CSW’s Public Affairs Officer