HAVANA, CUBA (Worthy News)– There was international disappointment Monday, February 1, that the leader of a growing network of independent churches in Cuba has been denied the right to appeal his six-year prison sentence by the Supreme Tribunal in Havana.
Cuban Evangelical Pastor Omar Gude Perez, who leads the 'Apostolic Reformation' group, was convicted and sentenced on what Christians called "trumped up charges" of "falsification of documents" during a summary trial last July.
In a statement distributed by advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) Pastor Gude Perez’s wife, Kenia, said the court's decision confirmed her belief that her husband’s arrest and imprisonment in May 2008 was "orchestrated" at the highest levels of government.
Pastor Gude Perez was initially charged with "human trafficking" but a local court threw out the charges ten months later,citing a lack of evidence, trial observers said. The latest charge was brought against him a full year after his initial detention, CSW said.
"COUNTER REVOLUTIONARY CONDUCT"
The prosecution’s petition also accused the pastor of 'counter-revolutionary conduct and attitudes'. "We are extremely disappointed to learn of the Supreme Tribunal’s decision to refuse Pastor Gude Perez’s right of appeal," said CSW's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas.
Another key pastor in the Apostolic Reformation network is reportedly contesting government efforts to evict him from his home and confiscate his property. Pastor Mario Alvarez has appealed to the Supreme Tribunal to prevent what he believes is the illegal confiscation of his home.
CSW said that at least 30 other church leaders from the same network were detained in various parts of the country during 2009 and "several report that the authorities were threatening to confiscate their homes."Thomas said that the, "number of church leaders arrested recently clearly indicates a government policy to crack down on this independent religious group."
He said CSW has urged Cuban authorities to "immediately release Pastor Perez and strongly urge the Cuban government to stop legal harassment of the leadership of the Apostolic Reformation."
MORE DETENTIONS REPORTED
At least scores of Christians and other dissidents are known to be held in prisons in the Communist-run island. An island human rights group said this month that the number of political prisoners behind bars in Cuba fell by just five to 201 in the past half year.
The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation said Havana's Communist government has increasingly used a strategy of quick arrests and releases to punish anti-government activists, contributing to a decline in the number jailed at any given moment.
That figure dropped sharply during the first two years of the Raul Castro government, falling from 316 in July 2006 when he took power from his older brother Fidel. But the commission said that decline has leveled off recently.
"Unless a miracle occurs, the situation of political, civil and economic rights in Cuba throughout 2010 will stay the same or get worse," The Associated Press (AP) news agency quoted Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Havana-based commission, as saying.
Sanchez's group recorded 869 brief detentions of opposition leaders and dissidents in the last six months. U.S. based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said last week that among those being harassed is well-known blind human rights defender Juan Carlos Gonzalez Leiva and his family.
DISSIDENT, FAMILY "THREATENED"
"In recent weeks, Cuban authorities have repeatedly threatened to force Gonzalez Leiva and his wife and fellow rights defender Tania Maceda Guerra to leave Havana and move elsewhere on the island. The authorities have pressed for the move under a draconian law that restricts freedom of movement."
The "harassment of Gonzalez Leiva offers further proof that the Raul Castro government is willing to do everything within its power to prevent human rights monitoring, including forcibly displacing the monitors themselves," added HRW Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco.
Cuban authorities have consistently denied human rights abuses and the existence of 'dissidents' on the Communist island, saying those persecuted are mainly "mercenaries" of the United States seeking to overthrow the government.
However a recent HRW report – "New Castro, Same Cuba: Political Prisoners in the Post-Fidel Era" -claims that Raul Castro has kept Cuba's "repressive machinery" fully active, "quashing virtually all forms of political dissent."
Independent Christian groups are also viewed as a threat to Castro's power base, several rights activists have suggested.
The report also cites the government's continued use of Decree 217 to restrict the freedom of movement of journalists, human rights defenders, and other members of civil society who criticize the government.