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Laritza Diversent is a Cuban attorney, independent journalist, and human rights defender. She graduated from the University of Havana Law School in 2007 and along with several other lawyers founded the Cubalex Legal Information Center. Cubalex is dedicated to educating Cubans about their legal rights under the country’s constitution and body of laws, as well as under international standards. The Human Rights Brief had the opportunity to speak with her about her work and the human rights situation on the island.
Human Rights Brief: What does the Cubalex Legal Information Center do?
Laritza Diversent: The Cubalex Legal Information Center is an independent office (not state-affiliated and part of civil society) located in Cuba. It offers free legal advice on national and international human rights issues for Cuban nationals and foreigners who solicit guidance, either in person, by phone, mail, or e-mail. It advises on national and international legal issues, such as housing, migration, inheritance, criminal justice reform, constitutional law, the exercise of civil and political rights, and anything else of interest to Cuban citizens. The Center investigates individual complaints related to human rights violations that infringe national law or international norms and obtains evidence about cases under investigation. As such, the Center requires its clients to provide official documentation to support their allegations if their case moves forward. We prepare memos for our clients, explaining the pertinent legal information and giving recommendations, always in written form, either by electronic or hard copy.
HRB: Why is the work that you do important?
LD: The majority of Cuban citizens are unfamiliar with the prevailing judicial system on the island or the steps that they must take to perform a determined legal action, whether it is civil, criminal, administrative, or family-related. This is especially true for civil and political rights. Frequently, they are victims of arbitrary and selective application of the law. In this respect, the Cubalex Legal Information Center aims to increase pro bono representation and legal analysis available in Cuba, as well as the capacity of political dissidents, human rights activists, and everyday citizens located inside or outside the country who seek our help to defend themselves. Cubalex offers its clients detailed information about the Cuban legal system, the legal norms that apply to their case, and appropriate procedures to follow before government, regional, or international institutions.
HRB: What role do human rights play in your work?
LD: The Legal Information Center also aspires to be a specialized reference agency for formal complaints of human rights violations on the island in a professional, legal, and effective manner, with the goal of changing the Cuban government’s human rights reputation at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations. Accordingly, the office performs key actions, such as increasing the pro bono representation and legal analysis available in Cuba and increasing the knowledge and level of understanding of domestic and international law, especially human rights law, in pro-democracy activists.
HRB: How many clients does the Cubalex Legal Information Center have? And, what type of cases do you take?
LD: The Cubalex Legal Information Center responded to a total of 574 requests for services in 2012, of which 302 were new cases. Of the requests for services we responded to, 289 were made by political dissidents, 38 were made by inmates, and 121 were made by people with no apparent political motivation. The Legal Information Center gathers all the legal information required for each specific case and the necessary documentation to analyze every detail and write a memo that explains all the facts and legal issues that apply to the situation. In another document, the Center issues its recommendations and details the legal processes that the client could follow to try to remedy his or her problem, as well as steps that should be taken, letting him or her know about the existence of any alternatives that could be followed, including those that could be taken in the regional or international context that do not require a total exhaustion of domestic remedies. If the client needs to submit a letter to the authorities, the office assumes the task of writing and printing it, basically because attorneys who work in the system do not do this and in this country state agencies do not provide printing services for digital documents. Cubalex prints copies of every document for its files to be able to give copies to any authorities when necessary and to confirm receipt. If the client is required to send a report or communication to a regional or international human rights organ, Cubalex prepares it either ex officio or at the request of the interested party, satisfying all legal requirements, and sends it electronically.
HRB: Has the Cubalex Legal Information Center brought cases before any international human rights organization?
LD: In 2012 the office sent a communication about 69 detentions to the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. We sent communications to four of the Special Rapporteurs—two to the Special Rapporteur on Torture, Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, one to the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, and one to the Special Rapporteur on the Right to an Adequate Standard of Living. We sent twelve requests for precautionary measures to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—two of those were granted, for dissidents Sonia Garro Alfonso and José Díaz Silva; two were denied; and the Commission has asked for updated information on four of the cases we sent. The office also sent a report about the human rights situation in Cuba to the Working Group for Universal Periodic Review at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, but we have not received any information from them. Cubalex stays apprised of the development of each of its cases in order to be able to offer legal advice at any moment and assist with the exhaustion of domestic legal remedies. Thanks to this close following, the majority of clients follow our recommendations to the letter and let us know about any decision they are going to take or any doubts they have. They are very satisfied and thank us for our services and the knowledge that they can count on having our assessment when they need it. Our permanent goal is to find an adequate legal avenue that requires the governmental authorities to respond and address the complaints of fundamental rights violations on the island.
HRB: Why do you think it is necessary to have the type of legal assistance that the Cubalex Legal Information Center offers?
LD: Cuban citizens are daily victims of the abuse of power and the state organs act with total ignorance of international human rights standards, principally because national legislation is not compatible with international norms. Within the legal system, there are no judicial recourses for human rights violations. The Constitution does not recognize any national institution competent in the area of promoting and protecting human rights. There is an inter-institutional system, which prevents the receipt of complaints or individual petitions, that is supported by the Constitution and integrated by institutions such as the Attorney General of the Republic and the Supreme Court, the National Organization of Lawyers, the security forces and the central government administration. The system provides for mandatory answers, but not court processing or a solution if the complaint is proven to be true. The sixty-day response term is way too long and does not provide for an exception in urgent cases. There is no separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches; there is no group of attorneys independent from those of the state, and the Supreme Court does not have the ability to declare legislation that violates human rights to be unconstitutional. As a group of independent lawyers, Cubalex investigates and tries to find an effective solution for human rights violations alleged by citizens, through advice and direct legal assistance, to increase, in the short and long-term, fundamental knowledge about the Cuban legal system and the means through which human rights can be defended at the national and international level. This advice also has the goal of improving legal defense arguments when dealing with Cuban authorities and activating international procedures to denounce human rights violations on the island.
HRB: What are the most common types of complaints of human rights violations that are brought to the Center? And how do your clients describe them in their daily lives?
LD: The most frequent violations are related to guarantees in judicial, civil, and administrative procedures, principally due to the Cuban courts’ lack of independence. For example, police investigations should not destroy the presumption of innocence, but often the cases are manipulated in the beginning stages of the proceeding, prejudicing the accused. Often the only incriminating evidence is the scent of the person—a questionable piece of evidence given the way in which witnesses recall it. Technical scientific evidence, like DNA, is optional for these institutions and in practice they are not used because of their cost. The right to defense is violated first because the defense attorneys are members of the only lawyers’ organization that exists in the country, so they are not independent and have little access to their clients during the preliminary stages. The accused are interrogated without an attorney present and can only hire one after being detained for seven days, when the prosecutor gives an order of provisional detention. Psychological torture is used in these interrogations. Criminal records are full of racist stereotypes of the Afro-descendant population, with race alone often constituting irrefutable proof of guilt, according to the authorities. People with scarce resources have a better chance of ending up in prison as a result of the transgressions, corruption and cronyism of and among police, prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys. In many cases, judges abuse their power when deciding which evidence to consider, often to the detriment of the accused and in violation of due process, which contributes to the climate of insecurity within the legal system, in civil, criminal, and administrative matters. Many of our clients are inmates and demonstrate their lack of conformity with the administration of justice by going on hunger strikes as a form of protest against arbitrary judicial processes and against the abuse of power by members of the Ministry of the Interior, which in the best case cause irreversible illness, and in the worst case, death. Inmates are transferred to a detention center outside the province in which they live, in violation of legal procedure, a measure that equally affects their families by obligating them to spend money on travel when they do not have sufficient resources to do so. These violations also directly affect the dissidents who, through judicial processes, are repressed and prevented from exercising their rights. The impunity of the Ministry of the Interior and the lack of independence of so many judges and prosecutors radically increases the number of arbitrary detentions in which the rights, especially of the opposition, are violated and physical and psychological torture are utilized.
HRB: Have you seen any sort of implementation of change?
LD: Small sectors of the population benefit from change, but they are insufficient and leave the precarious economic situation of the country intact, which has been aggravated for twenty years since the fall of the Socialist Union. These are economic changes and do not include what the nation needs to live in democracy. They do not include civil and political rights.
HRB: Have you been afraid while doing the work that you do? What inspires you to keep doing it?
LD: Being in Cuba is always frightening because the general situation of insecurity can result in a lack of judicial independence. At any moment anyone can become a victim of selective application of the law, and even more so if you dissent against government policies, in which case you could be exposed to degrading treatment and torture, which are very hard to document in this country because of the lack of independent institutions to protect human rights. It is precisely this fear that inspires me. For example, when I was a little girl I was always afraid of frogs, but when my son was born I controlled my fear so as not to transmit it to him. I am still afraid, but I can control my fears for an end that I consider to be greater. I am completely aware and I assumed these risks to do what I do in my country, but my commitment to the defense of human rights is greater, not only for the future of my family but because of the many stories I hear of people who have not been able to control their fears of the government and therefore suffer not only the bad treatment of the authorities, and also the frustration and impotence of not having been able to confront their fear. This also inspires me.
HRB: What do you think of the Castro brothers’ retiring?
LD: The time has come. I cannot believe it myself when I say that the destiny of my country depends on two people staying in power, Raúl and Fidel Castro, but I find it even more incomprehensible that we Cubans have taken no action against this uncertainty. I keep thinking that the destiny of the Cuban people is in our hands, but the reality says something else.
HRB: Where do you get support for your organization in terms of solidarity?
LD: We receive support from many exiled Cubans and foreigners and non-governmental organizations located in other countries that are committed to human rights and consider our work to be important. I would like to take this opportunity to thank them in the name of Cubalex and all the people we have been able to help.