Cuban ‘Lady in White’ tells of police repression

Laura Pollan is one of the “Ladies in White”, who has been demonstrating in Havana for the release of relatives imprisoned for their criticism of the Cuban government. Her husband, Héctor Fernando Maseda Gutiérrez, 67, is an engineer and independent journalist and one of 75 people arrested during a crackdown by the authorities in March 2003. He received a 20-year prison sentence after being convicted under laws that Amnesty International believes to be so vague that they are currently being interpreted in a way that infringes fundamental human rights.Laura spoke to Amnesty International about the ill treatment she experienced when detained by police during a demonstration in Havana last week and her work on behalf of prisoners of conscience, one of whom died earlier this month following a hunger strike, in Cuba.She began by describing a protest by the “Ladies in White” that took place on Thursday 17 March. “We went to the Saint Barbara church in the municipality of Arroyo Naranjo. We decided to go to Arroyo Naranjo because Miguel Valdés Tamayo died there. We arranged a mass for him, as we did for Orlando Tamayo Zapata [who died on hunger strike], as they were the two prisoners of conscience who passed away.”We also wanted to go to the house of Orlando Fundora, who had been on hunger strike. Although he had stopped it, we wanted to know about his health. His home is seven or eight blocks from the church. That is where they [the security forces] attacked us.”We were walking with a gladioli [a flower] in our hands, as we always do, when they [government supporters] started shouting at us. We only replied by saying ‘Freedom!’ “I have got many scratches and bruises on my body, because the police forced us onto buses. I still have a wound on my thumb.”Once on the bus, they took us around many places. People were looking at us. “We were carrying pencils and gladioli that we always distribute during our walks. Pencils saying ‘human rights’, saying ‘Ladies in White’. When we were on the bus, I was throwing pencils and gladioli [from the window]. People could not collect them immediately, but I’m convinced that later, out of curiosity, they would go and collect them; this way they would know that those who threw them were human rights defenders, the Ladies in White.”When we arrived home, there were many people around. They had placed police patrols to close the way. There were many people watching.”A woman said: ‘but if they are not doing anything wrong, the only thing they want is their husbands’ freedom, why do they treat them like this?'”They [the police] can do anything they want. People are too scared to join in [demonstrations].”We are exhausted. Whilst our relatives are in jail, the Damas de Blanco have to have the strength to be able to call for their freedom, and get them out of those prisons where they should never have been put.”I have been invited to Holland for a film festival, but I know that they are not going to allow me to travel, they are not going to give me permission to leave. “They told me I should go to the Ministry of Education and ask the Minister to give me permission to travel. They told me that if the Minister gives me a permit, then it would be seen by the Office of Migration. This doesn’t make sense. I am 62. “I have been retired from my work [as teacher] for more than 5 years, so why does the Ministry of Education have to give me permission before seeking a further authorization from the Office of Migration? This is because they don’t want to appear to be the ones who will not allow me to travel. The Ministry [of Education] has got my file waiting for an authorization since November 2005.”I think they have had them [the prisoners of conscience] in prison for too long, seven years, just for wanting to say what they think, to enjoy freedom of movement, free association. They are not terrorists. They just defend human rights and want a better future for Cuba, a future of peace and democracy.”