The Miami Herald
May 7, 1999

Cuba's crime-fighter: firing squad

Five await death in drive denounced by human rights activist
Cuba answers violence with busy firing squad
Havana activist decries executions

Herald Staff Writer

Cuba's execution of at least 10 convicted criminals and the sentencing of five
more to death in a two-month crackdown reflect the Havana government's
draconian 19th Century ideas for controlling society, a human rights activist said

The 10 executions by firing squad compare with only two confirmed in all of 1998,
said Gerardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, of the Havana-based Cuban Commission for
Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

``This is a very notable increase that scares us, Sanchez said in a telephone
interview. ``The most terrible part is that this may be only a partial list, because
the government does not always say all it does.

``I believe they are accelerating these processes [executions] in an attempt to
maintain social control and control criminal activity, said Jose Miguel Vivanco,
Americas regional director for Human Rights Watch.

It's not surprising, Vivanco added, because Cuban law is based on ``draconian
concepts from the previous century that assume drastic and exemplary
repression averts worse evils.

The string of executions appears to have begun in mid-February, shortly after the
National Assembly approved harsh new laws that extended the death penalty to a
broad range of common and political crimes.

Cuban laws now make the death penalty possible for 112 crimes, Sanchez said,
79 of them involving state security violations and 33 involving common crimes like
drug trafficking, corruption and even cattle rustling.

Castro's word for judges

President Fidel Castro, who urged the Assembly to approve the laws, had earlier
told a conference of police officials that he hoped Cuban judges ``will not be too
weak to enforce capital punishment to halt the wave of violent crimes racking the
island over the past two years.

All 10 of the men executed were convicted of murders committed during robberies
or family and personal disputes, Sanchez said. None appeared to have had any
political overtones.

At least six of the cases were from eastern cities like Santiago de Cuba and Las
Tunas, long viewed as the most pro-Castro but poorest part of the island. The two
executions reported in 1998 were also in Santiago de Cuba, Sanchez said.

Eight of the murders occurred in 1997, hinting at a backlog of executions perhaps
accumulated since the January 1998 visit to Cuba by Pope John Paul II, a strong
critic of the death penalty.

All but two of the executions were reported in provincial newspapers, and radio
and television broadcasts, Sanchez said. None appear to have been reported by
Havana media that serve foreign audiences, like the international editions of the
Communist Party's Granma newspaper.

The other two executions were reported by independent journalists that Sanchez
said he considers reliable. Western diplomats in Havana said they regard
Sanchez's reports as credible.

Five other convicted criminals were sentenced to death during the recent
crackdown, Sanchez said, joining the seven people previously known to be
awaiting execution in Cuba.

Two Salvadorans, Raul Ernesto Cruz Leon and Otto Rene Rodriguez Llereno,
were sentenced to death in March for a string of terror bombings that racked
Havana in the summer of 1997.

An emotionally disturbed man was sentenced to death March 4 for the 1998
murder of a police officer. A Havana court on Feb. 18 ratified the death penalties
for two men convicted in the killings of two Italian, one Canadian and one German
tourist in 1997 and 1998.

Among the other eight people known to be on death row is a Cuban exile from
Miami, Humberto Real Suarez, who infiltrated Cuba by boat with six other exiles
in 1994. He was sentenced to death in 1996 after being convicted of murdering a
guard; the others were sentenced to 30 years.

Fighting wave of violence

Sanchez said he believes the spree of executions stems from the Castro-inspired
campaign launched early this year to halt a surging wave of violent crimes that
had affected many Cubans.

Thousands of police from an elite National Brigade were swiftly deployed around
Havana in January to round up prostitutes and petty hustlers who had been
thriving on Cuba's booming tourist industry.

Cuban laws long allowed the death penalty, although the constitution adopted in
1940 limited it to cases of treason or espionage in times of war. That limitation
was removed after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

A defense of capital punishment published last month by a top hard-line member
of the National Assembly showed the government sees it as a tool in its 40-year
confrontation with the United States.

Capital punishment, Assembly member Lazaro Barreda wrote in the newspaper
Trabajadores, is ``a legal defense mechanism for society against the worst crimes
involving very shameful and strongly repudiated actions.

Barreda added that the punishment is also ``dissuasive, especially with regard to
the intensification of U.S. attacks and the existence of terrorist groups operating
against Cuba.

                              EXECUTIONS IN CUBA

Executions reported in provincial newspapers:

   Francisco Javier Chavez Palacios. Convicted of April 4, 1997, murder of a
Communist Party official in a fight in the eastern city of Bayamo. No execution
date reported.

   Jose Luis Osorio Zamora. Convicted of murdering a child in eastern city of
Manzanillo. No dates given for crime or execution.

   Luis Carlos Velazquez Cabrera and Felix Joaquin Sanchez Ramos. Executed
March 5 for separate murders in rural areas outside eastern city of Victoria de las
Tunas in 1997.

   Roberto Rodriguez Galano and Carlos Mario Martinez Diaz. Executed in the
first half of March. Murdered an acquaintance during a robbery in 1997 in the
eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.

   Carlos Garcia Bermudez and Felix Garcia Gonzalez. Executed March 10 for
murdering a peasant during a 1997 robbery attempt in central city of Sancti

Reported by independent journalist Marvin Hernandez:

   Irovelio Hernandez and Reynaldo Daniel Ramos Ramirez. Executed March 26
on charges of murder and possession of illegal weapons.