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Cuba: Rights Activists Beaten, Detained by Police at Payá Funeral

Rights activists and foreign media in Cuba reported on July 23 that Cuban state police detained nearly 50 individuals as they departed from funeral services for Oswaldo Payá, leader of the famed Varela Project and a winner of the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for human rights and democracy.

Payá was a leading advocate for freedom of expression, freedom of association, and other fundamental rights on the island. He was known for his moderate, non-violent approach to seeking reform. Along with his colleague Harold Cepero, Payá was killed in a car accident in Bayamo on July 22. Two passengers, both politicians visiting from Europe, survived the crash.

Antonio Rodiles, in Havana. Photography by Tracey Eaton, posted with photographer's permission.

Antonio Rodiles, in Havana. Photography by Tracey Eaton, posted with photographer's permission.

Activists including Guillermo Fariñas and Antonio Rodiles, who leads the independent “Estado de SATS” intellectual forum on policy reform in Cuba, were among those detained.

Shortly after his release from detention, Cuban-born, Barcelona-based writer and blogger Ernesto Hernández Busto interviewed Rodiles about the incident. Rodiles described how police appeared as mourners exited the church where services were held, in Havana's El Cerro neighborhood. He explained that many wanted to walk to the Colón cemetery, where Payá would be buried, but that police would not allow this.

Rodiles describes the confrontation that took place when he attempted to keep police from arresting a friend, Julio Aleago Pesant:

…[Oigo] un agente [que] le dice a otro: “Ahí va Aleaga Pesant, vamos a arrestarlo” [...] [Me] volteo y voy tras ellos; le van arriba y yo los cuestiono y trato de impedir que lo agarren. Uno de ellos me grita, yo le respondo, y entonces siento que varios se me echan encima con violencia. Me defiendo y comienzo también a tirar golpes y patadas. Entre seis o siete me someten y me llevan hacia el carro de la policía…

…[I hear] one agent say to another, “There goes Aleago Pesant, let’s arrest him.” [...] I turn and go over to them; they come up and I am questioning them and trying to keep them from grabbing him. One of them shouts at me, I respond, and then I feel several of them grab me violently. I defend myself and start to also throw punches and kicks. About six or seven of them descend and take me to the police car…

The independent, Cuba-based news group Hablemos Press posted this video in which verbal confrontation between police and the crowd can be heard. In the following video from Euronews, viewers can see individuals being forced onto a bus by police and men in plain clothes.

Family members have questioned whether the accident may have occurred due to foul play. Mid-week, The Miami Herald cited an account from Payá's son who told reporters that the passengers who survived the accident had told officials in Spain and Sweden that a truck had hit their car and run them off the road. Blogger and US-Cuba policy expert Phil Peters has posted a useful compilation of press reports on the crash, which reflect a range of stories about what caused the accident.

At the conclusion of their interview, Hernández Busto asked Rodiles how this experience of “direct physical repression” might affect his work. Rodiles responded:

Desgraciadamente, estas barreras han pasado a ser parte de las pruebas a vencer en este sistema. Mi plan es seguir trabajando, ahora con una visión más clara de todo el esfuerzo que debemos ponerle a una transición pacífica a la democracia en nuestra tierra.

Sadly, these barriers have become part of the challenge of defeating this system. My plan is to continue working, now with a clearer view of all the effort we must put into a peaceful and democratic transition in our land.

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