Two dissident artists have faced their first day of trial in Cuba after being detained nearly a year ago, in an ongoing judicial process that human rights groups have labelled a “farce” and a “circus”.
Police and security forces surrounded the court in Havana on Monday, while a small group of family members was allowed access to the courthouse, an official from Cuba’s International Press Center told the Reuters news agency.
The activists, Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara and Maykel Castillo, are prominent members of the Havana-based San Isidro Movement, an artists collective that led several protests before many of the group left Cuba, alleging repression.
Otero Alcantara, 34, is accused of defaming the national flag, contempt and public disorder, and faces seven years in jail, according to a March 8 court filing viewed by Reuters.
Castillo, 39, a rapper also known as Osorbo, has also been charged with assault and faces 10 years in jail, the court document shows.
Representatives from the Havana embassies of several European countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, United Kingdom, Norway and Sweden, stood huddled a block from the court awaiting access for nearly two hours after asking to enter and observe the proceedings.
“We were not authorised to enter the courthouse,” said a representative of the German embassy before departing. The representative asked not to be named and declined to say why the group had been denied access to the courthouse.
“We want human rights to be respected in all places and countries,” the diplomat said.
Both Otero Alcantara and Castillo appeared in the music video for “Patria y Vida”, a defiant hip-hop song that became the unofficial “anthem” for widespread anti-government protests that broke out in Cuba last July.
The Cuban government did not immediately reply to a request by Reuters for comment on the trials, or say why access to the courthouse was restricted.
Cuban state media, including the ruling Communist Party newspaper Granma, have accused Castillo and Otero Alcantara’s San Isidro Movement of being part of a US-directed “soft coup” attempt – a charge the group denies.
The cases of the two men have become a lightning rod for activists and human rights groups, who allege Cuba has ramped up repression in the wake of last year’s protests.
Human Rights Watch last week called the trials a “farce”, while Amnesty International called them a “circus”.
Cuba has said those detained before and after the July protests have received fair trials in accordance with Cuban law.
According to an audio recording released last week on social media by fellow activists, authorities offered to release Otero Alcantara if he left the country, but he refused.
Cuban artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Castillo are set to stand trial on Monday.
Concerned governments, especially from Latin America & Europe, should monitor the trial and call for the artists’ release.
— Juan Pappier (@JuanPappierHRW) May 26, 2022
Otero Alcantara also was the focus of protests by other artists following his arrest last year. He launched a hunger strike and was hospitalised to demand the return of works that authorities had confiscated when he was detained.
In a show of support, about 20 other prominent artists demanded that their works be removed from exhibition at the National Museum of Fine Arts, which rejected the call.
The streets outside the courthouse on Monday were otherwise quiet throughout the day. Several activists and friends of the men alleged on social media that they were under watch by state security and had been prohibited from leaving their homes.
Maritza Herrera, 66, said she came to show her support for her friends Otero Alcantara and Castillo. She said others had been prevented from doing so, or did not dare.
“They know that if they arrive here, they will be put in a patrol car and taken away to a [police] station. That’s why they’re not here,” she said.