By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, Cuba, April 30, 2008 – Cuban President Raúl Castro’s announcement that virtually all death sentences would be commuted to terms of 30 years to life was welcomed Tuesday by social sectors calling for the abolition of capital punishment.
The Cuban government does not generally provide statistics on the prison population or the number of people facing the death sentence. But Elizardo Sánchez, president of the dissident Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said that according to his group’s estimates, around 30 people on death row will benefit from the decision.
”It is a gesture that merits our support and I am sure that as we move towards a climate of mutual respect in international relations, capital punishment will be completely eliminated,” Reverend Raúl Suárez told IPS.
The Baptist preacher holds a seat in the Cuban parliament, where he has publicly spoken out against the death penalty. ”Neither in Cuba nor anywhere else in the world does this punishment effectively fight crime,” said Suárez, who is the director of the ecumenical Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Centre (CMMLK).
In a speech published by the ruling Communist Party newspaper Granma Tuesday, Castro announced that a group of prisoners facing the death penalty, some of whom have been waiting for years for a pronouncement by the Council of State, will now serve life sentences or 30-year terms instead.
Life imprisonment will apply to those who committed their crimes after the life sentence was adopted as an alternative to the death penalty in the 1999 modification of the penal code, while those who committed their crimes prior to the reforms will have their sentences commuted to 30 years in prison.
Orlando Márquez, director of the magazine Palabra Nueva, put out by the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Havana, said the announcement was ”very good news and a bold and mature step by the Cuban Council of State, taking into account how deeply rooted support for this kind of punishment is among a large part of Cuban society.”
”Any gesture of clemency and respect for life, of which this is one example, exalts, rather than weakens, the state that makes it,” said Márquez.
In his view, Cuban society has other legal instruments that work just as well in terms of protecting the country’s citizens and guaranteeing public order, without the need to punish people by putting them to death.
The decision reaffirms the de facto moratorium on the death penalty in place since 2000, which was only interrupted in 2003 by the execution of three men who hijacked a passenger ferry to attempt to sail to the United States.
The executions drew cries of outrage from the international community as well as criticism within Cuba.
”Many people disagreed because although what they (the hijackers) did was bad, they didn’t kill anyone,” retired high school teacher Digna Martínez told IPS. ”I think they should have been kept in prison, like these prisoners will be now, rather than shot by a firing squad.”
Castro said the death penalty was handed down in the 2003 passenger ferry case to cut short a wave of more than 30 attempted and planned hijackings of boats and planes, ”encouraged by U.S. policy.”
The decades-old conflict with Washington was thus once again blamed for the decision not to completely do away with capital punishment, with Castro stating that under the present circumstances, ”we cannot disarm ourselves in the face of an empire that continues to harass and attack us.”
Castro said that ”in all these years, there have been 713 acts of terrorism against Cuba, 56 of which have occurred since 1990, organised and financed from U.S. territory, leaving a total of 3,478 people dead and 2,099 injured and disabled.”
He added that although the death penalty remains on the books, ”Cuba understands and respects the arguments of the international movement advocating its elimination or a moratorium,” and said that ”for this reason our country has not voted against such initiatives in the United Nations.”
”We have been forced to choose, in legitimate defence, the route of establishing and enforcing severe laws against our enemies, but always strictly within the framework of the law and with respect for legal guarantees,” Castro said Monday at the closing session of the sixth plenary session of the Communist Party Central Committee.
Observers described as ”highly significant” the choice of venue for making the announcement.
”Socialism must be based on moral considerations, above all, and if we examine things from another point of view, to some extent we are all responsible for what other people do,” said Raymundo García, the founder of the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue, a Cuban civil society organisation in the city of Cárdenas, 150 kilometres east of Havana.
”The death penalty is not a solution, but part of the problem,” the Baptist preacher told IPS.
With respect to the prisoners who will have their sentences commuted, Sánchez said that ”some have been awaiting execution for more than 10 years.
Reacting with little enthusiasm to Castro’s announcement, the dissident leader told IPS that ”what would be truly meaningful would be the immediate abolition of capital punishment, because otherwise the risk of it being applied remains latent.”
But other dissidents said that was unlikely to happen. ”I would say this is virtually a permanent de facto moratorium. I think it is improbable that after making this public commitment, a sentence of this kind would be carried out again,” said Manuel Cuesta Morúa, spokesman for the moderate opposition coalition Arco Progresista.
Castro also mentioned the case of three men on death row whose appeals, he said, would be reviewed soon by Cuba’s Supreme Court: Salvadoran nationals Raúl Ernesto Cruz and Otto René Rodríguez, who were sentenced to death in 1999, and Cuban citizen Humberto Eladio Real.
The two Salvadoran citizens were convicted of carrying out a string of terrorist bombings in tourism establishments in Havana in the summer of 1997, one of which resulted in the death of an Italian businessman.
The Cuban citizen, Real, was arrested in 1994 after illegally landing in Cuba and murdering a man in order to steal his car. He was sentenced for crimes against the security of the state, homicide and the illegal use of firearms.
Capital punishment is reserved in Cuba for the most serious cases of homicide, rape, sexual abuse of minors involving violence, robbery involving violence and intimidation, and crimes in which corruption serves as an aggravating factor.
The penal code also establishes the death penalty for crimes against the country’s external security, including acts aimed at undermining its independence or territorial integrity, the promotion of armed actions against Cuba, aiding the enemy, and espionage.
In addition, the penal code chapter that addresses crimes against the country’s internal security stipulates the use of this punishment for offences like rebellion, sedition, usurpation of political or military leadership, sabotage and terrorism.
But the death penalty cannot be applied in the case of people under 20 or women who were pregnant at the time the crime was committed or when the sentence was handed down. In practice, no woman has been executed since the 1959 revolution. (IPS)