Human rights groups criticize Cuba’s new penal code

Cuba’s new penal code went into effect this week, and activists and human rights organizations warned Friday that it could further limit freedom of expression and extinguish protests at a time of growing discontent on the island.

The code, a modified version of the country’s 1987 regulations that was approved by the Cuban government in May, will have repercussions for journalists, human rights activists, protesters, social media users and opposition figures.

The changes occur amid deep discontent in Cuba generated by various crises and at a time when the government continues to apply harsh sentences to people who participated in the historic 2021 protests on the island, including minors.

Among some of the changes are increases in minimum sentences and jail sentences for things like “public disorder,” “resistance,” and “outrage against national symbols.”

The new code also establishes criminal categories for digital offenses, noting that people who disseminate any information online considered false could be sentenced to up to two years in jail.

It also prohibits the receipt and use of funds to “defend activities against the Cuban State and its constitutional order,” a measure that human rights groups say could be used against independent journalists and non-governmental groups. If convicted, this would carry four to 10 years in prison.

The government has called the new code “modern” and “inclusive”, noting that it contains tougher penalties against gender-based violence and racial discrimination. After its approval, Rubén Remigio Ferro, president of the People’s Supreme Court of Cuba, said on state television that the code is not intended to repress, but rather to protect “the social peace and stability of our nation.”

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But human rights groups, many of whom are not authorized to operate on the island, raised concerns about the new code on Friday.

“This is clearly an attempt to provide a legal route for repression and censorship, and an attempt by the Cuban authorities to undermine what little civic space exists on the island and prevent the possibility of Cubans taking to the streets again. ”, said Juan Pappier, senior human rights researcher for Human Rights Watch in Latin America.

Pappier, along with a report by Amnesty International, said the code is “rife with overly broad (language)” that Cuban authorities could use to more easily punish dissent.

Cuba has come under significant international criticism for its treatment of protesters in the July 2021 anti-government protests.

A total of 790 participants in these protests face trials for sedition, violent attacks, public disorder, robbery and other crimes, according to the most recent figures released in January by the Cuban Attorney General’s Office.

More than 500 are serving jail sentences, according to figures from the opposition organization Justicia 11J, which advocates for those being prosecuted or jailed in connection with the protests.

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