Summary and Current Status
On March 11, 2011, after serving more than 8 years and 3 months of his 25-year prison term, Cuban medical doctor Oscar Elías Biscet González was granted conditional humanitarian parole and released from prison. Authorities can return him to prison at any time to serve the remainder of his lengthy sentence.
A prominent dissident, Dr. Biscet is president of the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights (Fundación Lawton de Derechos Humanos). He previously served a three-year prison term for his peaceful criticism of Cuban government policies. The CHR has worked on Dr. Biscet’s case since 1999.
Dr. Biscet was re-arrested on December 6, 2002. The charge brought against him at that time —"disorderly conduct"—stemmed from his peaceful human rights efforts. Although he was already in detention when 75 people were arrested in March 2003 in a massive crackdown by the Cuban government, Dr. Biscet was summarily tried with several of them. At his trial on April 7, 2003, a new charge—that of working with the United States to subvert the Cuban government—was also leveled against him. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Amnesty International considered Dr. Biscet to be a “prisoner of conscience.”
For years Dr. Biscet has been outspoken in his peaceful criticism of the Cuban government. The Lawton Foundation, which he founded in 1997 and still heads, promotes the defense of human rights through nonviolent means. Dr. Biscet states that he has modeled his own work and that of the organization on the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and on the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. The Lawton Foundation has primarily worked to oppose abortion and the death penalty in Cuba. It is not officially recognized by the Cuban government.
Reliable reports indicate that Dr. Biscet and his family have been continually harassed since the mid to late 1990s because of his peaceful efforts to express his opinions. In February 1998, after he, on behalf of the Lawton Foundation, sent authorities a statistical report on diseases caused by methods of pregnancy termination used in his neighborhood, Dr. Biscet was expelled from the Cuban National Health System, which precluded him from practicing medicine. Shortly thereafter, he, his wife Elsa Morejón Hernández, and his son were evicted from their home, and Dr. Biscet's ration card was confiscated, forcing him and his family to rely on friends to provide them with food and shelter. In 1998 and the first half of 1999, he reportedly was detained briefly without charge more than two dozen times for his participation in peaceful anti-government meetings and demonstrations.
First arrest and prison term
On November 3, 1999, Dr. Biscet was one of more than 20 Cubans arrested in the weeks just prior to the Ibero-American Summit in Havana in what appeared to be an effort to prevent dissidents from expressing their opinions to visiting dignitaries. (The CHR undertook his case at this time.) In early 2000, Dr. Biscet was formally charged with "insult to the symbols of the homeland," "public disorder," and "incitement to commit a crime." The charges brought against Dr. Biscet appear to have been prompted by his involvement in organizing a peaceful demonstration to protest alleged human rights abuses by the Cuban government and to call for the release of political prisoners. During the demonstration, two Cuban flags reportedly were displayed upside down as a sign of protest.
On February 25, 2000, Dr. Biscet was brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced to three years in prison. Foreign diplomats and the press attended his trial. During his imprisonment he was considered by Amnesty International to be a prisoner of conscience. He served his sentence at a maximum security prison in Holguín province and was released on October 31, 2002, just a few days before it was due to expire.
Second arrest and trial
A few days later, on November 6, 2002, Dr. Biscet gave a press conference denouncing prison conditions and calling for international inspections. That same month he organized a group called “Friends of Human Rights” that reportedly met at different people's homes to discuss human rights issues and educate Cubans about their human rights and how to defend them peacefully. On December 6, 2002, as he and 16 other members of the group were approaching a home in Havana where they were planning to meet, police intervened and prevented them from entering. Dr. Biscet and several others then sat down in the street in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience and shouted, "Long live human rights! Freedom for Cuban political prisoners!" They were arrested. All but three of those arrested with Dr. Biscet were released shortly thereafter. Dr. Biscet subsequently was charged with “disorderly conduct” and held in pre-trial detention for several months.
On March 29, 2003, Dr. Biscet was transferred to State Security headquarters in Villa Marista, where many of the 75 Cuban dissidents arrested in the government crackdown that month were being held. The next day, his home was searched by State Security officers, who confiscated his computer, a fax machine, and personal documents and photos.
On April 7, 2003, Dr. Biscet was brought to trial along with three dissidents who had been arrested in March, among them Orlando Fundora Alvarez, a physician whose case the CHR also undertook. At his trial, Dr. Biscet learned that he was also charged under Article 91 of the Cuban Penal Code as someone “who in the interest of a foreign state, commits an act with the objective of damaging the independence or territorial integrity of the Cuban state.” He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Dr. Biscet’s trial failed to meet international fair trial standards in a number of ways. The trial, which lasted only a few hours, was closed—i.e. Western diplomats and international journalists were barred from the court room. Dr. Biscet’s lawyer reportedly was not permitted to see his client’s lengthy court file until the day that the trial began. Furthermore, according to reliable sources, no credible evidence was produced at the trial to support the Cuban government’s charges that Dr. Biscet had received money from the U.S. government and that he had been working with the U.S. authorities to subvert the Cuban government.
It is our understanding that Dr. Biscet decided not to appeal his conviction on the grounds that it would be useless because the courts in Cuba are not independent of the State Security Department.
Dr. Biscet’s case was submitted to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. On September 5, 2003, the Working Group adopted the opinion that Dr. Biscet’s imprisonment was “arbitrary, being in contravention of articles 9, 10, 19, 20, and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Former Personal Representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Christine Chanet, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International, and numerous other human rights organizations also called for Dr. Biscet’s release and for Cuba's Article 91 to be brought into compliance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.
Conditions of confinement and non-cooperative stance
After his sentencing, on April 24, 2003, Dr. Biscet was transferred to the Kilo 5½ maximum security prison in Pinar del Río province. As a result of his decision to refuse to wear the regular common-prisoner uniform and thus to serve his sentence in his underwear, Dr. Biscet reportedly was placed in solitary confinement and prohibited from receiving family visits, food, toiletries, and reading and writing material.
On November 12, 2003, Dr. Biscet was transferred from Kilo 5½ prison to another maximum security prison in the same province called Kilo 8. The previous day Dr. Biscet and six other political prisoners reportedly had peacefully protested the treatment that the family of another prisoner, Juan Enrique Ferrer García, was subjected to by prison authorities during their scheduled family visit. A prison official reportedly stated that Dr. Biscet had to be transferred because other prisoners saw him as a leader.
Five days following his transfer, after Dr. Biscet’s wife and parents traveled 150 kilometers from Havana for a scheduled family visit, prison authorities reportedly informed them that Dr. Biscet was being punished for a 3-week period and could not receive family visits, food, toiletries, and reading and writing material. Upon hearing this news, his mother reportedly had to be assisted and given medication by the prison staff because of a sudden rise in her blood pressure. We understand that she was then allowed a 10 minute visit with Dr. Biscet, who reportedly informed her that he was being held in a small cell together with another prisoner who had committed 12 criminal assaults. Reports indicate that Dr. Biscet subsequently was held for periods of time in a cell together with as many as twelve other prisoners who were common criminals.
On December 11, 2003, the director of Kilo 8 prison reportedly telephoned Dr. Biscet’s wife and told her that he was being punished once again, for refusing to stand to acknowledge the presence of prison guards and officials during the recount of prisoners and for shouting “down with the dictatorship” when the guards forced him to stand. Reliable sources reported that, after Dr. Biscet’s wife went to Pinar del Río on December 30, 2003, argued with officials, and threatened to remain in front of the prison if she did not see her husband, a fifteen minute visit was permitted.
From February 2003 through September 7, 2004, Dr. Biscet reportedly was permitted only four family visits and three deliveries of food provisions, and he was not permitted to make or receive any telephone calls. We understand that Dr. Biscet was held in a small isolation cell without windows or natural light from July 7, 2003, until October 24, 2004. Press reports indicate that he was only transferred out of solitary confinement after he fasted for ten days to protest his inhumane treatment. According to Dr. Biscet’s family, the assistant prison director informed them that he then was confined to a cell along with a resident of the United States accused of human trafficking.
In the first half of 2005, Dr. Biscet was transferred from Kilo 8 prison to the Combinado del Este maximum security prison in Havana. For the entire period that he was incarcerated at Combinado del Este prison, Dr. Biscet chose, on principle, not to cooperate with prison authorities. He reportedly did not wear the prison uniform, stand up for counts and inspections, or accept most medical treatment offered by prison doctors. For four and a half years, the Cuban government cited Dr. Biscet’s non-cooperative stance as justification for subjecting him to Phase 1 of the Cuban system’s “most severe” (mayor severo) prison regimen. This regimen permits family visits only once every 3 months, with a conjugal visit every 4 months. At the beginning of 2010, Cuban authorities upgraded Dr. Biscet’s prison regimen from “most severe” to Phase 2 of “severe” (severo). This regimen permits a family visit every 45 days and a conjugal visit every 2 months. Dr. Biscet was also permitted 100 minutes of telephone calls each month.
Dr. Biscet’s health was a concern during his imprisonment. In an open letter dated February 27, 2007, his wife made reference to the poor state of his overall dental health, symptoms of high blood pressure, progressive loss of eyesight, and joint pain. Recurrent gum infections resulted in considerable pain and the deterioration of his teeth, making it difficult for him to eat and causing him to lose about 60 pounds during his years of imprisonment. Given that Dr. Biscet did not trust doctors and dentists affiliated with the Cuban government to have his interests and wellbeing at heart, he resolutely refused to be treated by them while he was incarcerated. To its credit, the Cuban government allowed Dr. Biscet to take medicines that he, as a medical doctor, prescribed for himself and that his family delivered to him.
Release from prison on humanitarian parole
On March 10, 2011, the office of Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega announced by email that Dr. Biscet had been granted humanitarian parole and would be released from prison. The following day, three state security officials reportedly escorted him from “Combinado del Este” Prison, where he was being held, to his home in Havana. Upon his arrival there, in a telephone interview with Agence France Presse, he said,
I am fine, very happy to be reunited with the family. …It goes without saying that I will continue in the opposition because even in jail I did not give up my questioning attitude toward this government and the abuses it commits.
Dr. Biscet is the recipient of several prestigious international awards. These include the International Republican Institute's Democracy's People Award (2003); the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2007), the U.S. government’s highest civilian honor; the Dr. Rainer-Hildebrandt Medal for Non-Violent Commitment to Human Rights (2007); and the New York Academy of Sciences’ Heinz R. Pagels Human Rights of Scientists Award (2008).