On Christmas Day 2010, Antonio Michel and Marcos Maiquel Lima Cruz—brothers who are both independent Cuban journalists—were celebrating with their family and friends, like everyone else in their hometown of Holguín.
The brothers, both fans of Los Aldeanos, a Cuban rap group known for its counterrevolutionary lyrics, went into the street singing one of the group’s songs and waving a Cuban flag. Their singing was reported, either by a neighbor or a member of one of the Rapid Response Brigades—groups of civilians mobilized to survey dissidents and report rebellious behavior—and the police soon arrived. Both brothers were arrested and charged with public disorder and insulting symbols of the homeland for singing a protest song while carrying a Cuban flag.
“The authorities don’t like that,” explained Gerardo Ducos, an Amnesty International researcher working on the brothers’ case. For years, Ducos said, they had been under the surveillance of local authorities for their critical coverage of the government, and the authorities may have been looking for an excuse to arrest them. The singing gave them that excuse.
Following a trial, Antonio Michel was sentenced to two years in prison and Marcos Maiquel to three.
On Friday, Ducos and Amnesty International announced that they have adopted Antonio Michel and Marcos Maiquel as prisoners of conscience and are calling on the Cuban authorities to release them.
“It is unacceptable that a simple family party constitutes imprisonment in Cuba,” Amnesty International special adviser Javier Zúñiga said in a statement. “The brothers’ arrest shows that repression in Cuba is as strong as ever. Authorities are sharpening their strategies to silence dissent, targeting not only activists and journalists, but their families and friends as well.”
Since 1961 Amnesty has advocated successfully for the release of thousands of “prisoners of conscience,” a term it bestows on people who have been jailed “because of their political, religious, or other conscientiously held beliefs, ethnic origin, sex, color, language, national or social origin, economic status, birth sexual orientation, or other status.”
As “dissidents,” Antonio Michel and Marcos Maiquel were ripe targets for the government. They were both contributors to the online newspaper Candonga, which was shut down by authorities the same year they were arrested. The site’s editor, Yosvany Anzardo Hernandez, was also arrested in 2009 after giving an interview to a Miami-based radio station. His house was inspected and his cellphone, computer, books, and magazines were confiscated, but not before he had time to destroy Candonga’s server. Hernandez was held in custody for two weeks before he was released for a lack of evidence against him.
The Lima Cruz brothers’ mother is a longtime member of the Ladies in White, a well-known Cuban opposition movement composed of the female relatives of imprisoned dissidents. In the last few days, Ducos said, she has been warned by authorities that she is not allowed to leave her hometown.
“They don’t want her to be seen wearing her white clothes and taking part in demonstrations, calling for the release of her sons,” he said.
The Lima Cruz brothers are just two of many in Cuba who Amnesty says have been unfairly arrested for peacefully expressing their views. Last year the Cuban government was convinced to release 75 people who had been arrested during a 2003 crackdown on counterrevolutionaries, and whom Amnesty had identified as prisoners of conscience. Ducos said while the organization celebrates their release, only 10 or 12 of them have been allowed to remain in Cuba. The rest have been forced into exile, he said, moving to places like the United States, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Chile.
Amnesty International has been in touch with the Lima Cruz brothers’ immediate relatives, who have mobilized for their release. But no one from the Cuban government has responded to Amnesty’s letters or messages.