Foto © Aerial view of La Condesa and prisoners. Photo © Google Maps / Raquel Pérez - Cartas desde Cuba

A cry for help from Canadians imprisoned in La Condesa in Cuba

CiberCuba has gained access to the prison for foreigners La Condesa (The Countess), in the western province of Mayabeque, through the testimonies of six Canadians who tell their life stories from behind bars in Cuba. They fear for the deterioration of their already delicate health conditions.

The group has called on the Canadian government for greater attention to their plight and asked to be transferred to Canada to serve the rest of their sentences there.

"Please help!" This is how a CiberCuba reader began his message, who did not wish to reveal his real name. Following the trail of this urgent situation that is filled with fear and mistrust, for reasons that should never be judged, would lead to stories that go from fascination to disenchantment with a revolutionary island where, in reality, nothing or almost nothing evolves; stories of tourists who went from sunbathing in beach resorts in the beautiful island of Cuba to counting the hours for the right to a three-minute phone call to a loved one. They share a prison living area with around 70 other inmates, day and night, in La Condesa, the penitentiary center for foreigners located in the province of Mayabeque.

On this occasion, CiberCuba voices their concerns and will respond to their cry for help, knowing that their testimonies are, perhaps, only one of the many versions this story may have.

Just a number, a non-person

“I had a wonderful life with my beautiful wife and my beautiful daughter, until they came and arrested me and put me in this concentration camp,” says Vimalanathan Nadesu, a 47-year-old Canadian citizen arrested in Cuba in the fall of 2018. His name and his accent have the stamp of the Himalayas, of his Hindi blood. Eight months later he was charged with “trafico de divisa,” (currency trafficking) he said in Spanish. At the time of his arrest, Nadesu was at his house, in the eastern province of Las Tunas. His daughter, who was four years old at the time, did not understand why around twenty policemen broke into her house and took her father away. "She was devastated," recalls Nadesu. Along with him, two of his Canadian friends were also arrested for the same reason, Thabotharan Phavabalasingam and Sangeeth Sundaralingam.

Vimalanathan Nadesu. Photo: Courtesy of relatives.

What Nadesu calls "trafico de divisa" is - according to his court records - forgery and aggravated robbery. That is, withdrawing cash from ATMs using somebody else’s card. CiberCuba contacted his former lawyer, Wilfredo González Silva, to ask why the crime of aggravated robbery had been added to the forgery charges, which increases the sentence time.

The lawyer explained that it is because the court considers the card as an instrument of force, like a key, adding: “I do not believe that magnetic cards should be considered an instrument for the purpose of aggravated robbery. That is my opinion and I would defend it anywhere ”. The lawyer also warned that the Cuban Criminal Law is outdated in relation to electronic crimes, but this is an issue that goes beyond his competence.

At the young age of 31, Sangeeth already knew that "withdrawing money in Cuba was very difficult and required many transactions," he said. His eight-year experience of traveling to the island made him think that carrying $ 10,000 in cash would make life easier on this new vacation, during which he would open a club in partnership with his compatriots Nadesu and Thabotharan, he said.

Nothing could have been further from the reality as he would later discover to his cost. Despite the fact that he had booked accommodation near Nadesu, one night he decided to sleep at his friend's house, as they had been drinking during the carnivals that, in those days, enlivened the boring nights in Las Tunas. The next morning, he woke up to the hustle and bustle of the "military" and their questioning of "who was I and if I was staying at the house," he recalls. Since then, Sangeeth has been just a number, a non-person.

Sangeeth Sundaralingam. Photo: Courtesy of relatives.

Nadesu and Thabotharan face eight years of deprivation of liberty, while Sangeeth was sentenced to seven years. They do not understand why they must also pay fines when all the money they owned was seized by the authorities, nor do they understand why they had to sign a statement that included a lesser amount than the actual amount seized during the police search. They claim not to have committed any crime and cannot make sense their situation.

A Plea for help

Nabeel Stephan (52 years old) was involved in a car accident in October 2019. He was driving to the Airport in the province of Holguín, when a truck coming from the opposite direction with its full lights on caused him to be blinded. Nabeel slowed down, and as the truck passed, he saw a man walking on the road. He tried to avoid him but couldn't. As a result of the impact, the man, a Cuban citizen, lost his life.

Nabeel Stephan. Photo: Courtesy of relatives.

According to the version of Nicole, Nabeel's daughter, the family of the deceased assured them that "it had been an accident and they did not want to press charges." But the prosecutor did. Nabeel waited more than two hours for the arrival of the police at the scene of the accident, after calling them insistently, says Nabeel, who, since that night, suffers from depression and has contemplated suicide, according to the medical report stamped at the Ernesto Guevara Hospital, in Las Tunas. "I need help, and I need the press to know about our suffering," he says.

Medical report of Nabeel Stephan, stamped at the Ernesto Guevara Hospital in Las Tunas province

Simarjeet Buttar (47) also claims to be the victim of a judicial farce “to take my life away from me” -he said- which he shared with his wife and their seven-year-old son in Cuba. He denies being guilty of corruption of minors, went on a hunger strike in prison for two weeks and maintains that "what they did to me and my family is an injustice." He complains of "bugs and flies in the comedor” (dining room), of not being able to sleep and of skin irritation and itching, for which -he says- there are no medicines available in La Condesa.

Constant humiliation

According to Prison Insider, a website that captures information about the world’s prisons, in La Condesa, "in general, the humiliation is constant." The menu is unaltered and includes a piece of “dry and hard” bread with tea made from local plants and, for lunch, a portion of rice “always badly cooked, dirty and with worms and other insects, sometimes a spoonful of red beans or chickpeas. Twice a month, a 30-gram piece of bonny chicken. Once a month, a 30-gram piece of pork. The rest of the time, soya bean porridge (two tablespoons) and a soup akin to hot salty water with a few grains of rice with plenty of dead black flies.”

Simarjeet Buttar. Photo: Courtesy of relatives.

The website also points out that medical care there is based on water and rest and, to describe the overall health situation inside, mentions epidemic outbreaks that have forced the imposition of quarantines several times in the prison, while reporting the presence of “hundreds of mice, rats, cockroaches, and thousands of scorpions, tarantulas, mosquitoes and black flies.” Prison Insider also warns of problems with the water, electricity and food supplies in the prison.

Videos taken from La Condesa to which CiberCuba has had access, show the prison for foreigners as an abhorrent and unhealthy place. Bunk beds crammed together from which clothing hangs, collective toilets corroded by what appears to be rust and moisture, as well as a small outdoor space whose perimeter fence no longer exists, relatives say. In its place, there is now a concrete wall to prevent visibility from and into the prison. These low-quality films are several years old, therefore, they only serve as a reference to the living conditions of those who once lived in La Condesa. Now, according to Prison Insider in a publication dated nine months ago, the inmates are forced to paint the prison twice a year, for which they must pay for the paint and brushes from their own pockets, with the intention of “showing the embassies the welfare of the prisoners. "

For a similar reason to Buttar's, Benjamin Tomlin (48 years old), was arrested in 2017 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison to be served in La Condesa. His case, the only one known so far, made headlines about a year ago. On that occasion, his sister Caroline Simpson said that the alleged victim, a 15-year-old Cuban, during the trial denied having had relations with Tomlin: “She turned to my brother and I was sitting right behind him and I could see his face. She clearly said that she had never seen this man."

CiberCuba reported then that Tomlin "maintains that he is innocent, and his lawyer Ricardo Alcolado Pérez defends that his client was set up."

Caroline also denounced at that time that "the prison conditions are terrible, and she fears for his safety." After two and a half years in prison in Cuba, Tomlin has developed several health problems and now he needs a kidney transplant, an opiate medicine not available in Cuba to cope with severe pain from old fractures, and he also requires surgery in a testicle that is getting worse every day.

Benjamin Tomlin. Photo: Courtesy of relatives.

Tomlin, who traveled to Cuba often, as he also has his partner there, has had the support of his family and friends, who are campaigning for Canada to transfer him and his compatriots to a penitentiary in that country. In fact, the relatives with whom CiberCuba has had the opportunity to talk are all concerned because time goes by and there are still no signs of the transfer, despite the fact that they have all requested it for months.

Victims of a farce?

Among the support initiatives is the group called Human Rights for Canadians and Foreign Captives in Cuba, where they publish updates on the status of the prisoners in La Condesa, which also include the cases of Anton Avrov, 41, and Radu Martin, 47, who insists he had no prior criminal record.

Radu is serving a ten-year prison sentence for fraud in a "trial that was a show," he says. “The police went to my house and they robbed everything, money, phone, everything. Everything they could take, they took it”, he says, adding that his family in Cuba - his wife and two young children - are in a vulnerable situation. He has been waiting two years and nine months for the Canadian embassy to transfer him to his country. Both Anton and Radu maintain their innocence.

Radu Martin. Photo: Courtesy of relatives.

Seizing assets is a practice that can be applied not only to a low-profile Cuban or foreigner, but also to influential people or those with high social status. Two known cases are the British citizen Stephen Purvis and the Canadian Cy Tokmakjian, both businessmen sought to invest in Cuba and ended up meeting in La Condesa, after having been accused by the island's courts.

His properties and substantial bank accounts became seized assets by the Cuban government. For Purvis, his case shows "the farcical nature of Cuban justice", which also caused him to lose possession of a golf course and a hotel on the island. For Tokmakjian's family, his "prosecution was an excuse to confiscate the $100 million in assets of its Ontario-based Tokmakjian Group, in Cuba " The Guardian newspaper reported. They were both released a few years ago.

In general, the relatives of Canadian inmates in La Condesa say they are unaware of cases in which Canadian citizens have been transferred back to their country, and they compare the efforts made by other governments that do not have treaties with Cuba for transferring their citizens. They are disappointed that Canada has not done the same, despite its geographic proximity and the agreements it has signed with Cuba in this regard. One of these agreements is the Treaty between the Government of Canada and the Government of the Republic of Cuba on the Serving of Penal Sentences, according to which, prisoners abroad can be transferred to Canada to finish serving their sentences in a prison there, as long as the crime for which they have been accused in Cuba is also punishable in Canada, among other conditions.

"This is Cuba"

They regret that the Canadian government has not invested sufficient efforts or resources in safeguarding the interests of its own citizens, and they do not understand why the Canadian embassy has appointed a Cuban citizen named Susana Martínez to deal with the inmates in La Condesa and their relatives. It is Susana who receives Tomlin's complaints for being months without receiving specialized medical attention. It is Susana who receives reports of dirty water and inedible food, the lack of medicine for two months that affects Nadesu, the skin irritation that afflicts Buttar, and the lack of hygiene in the dining room.

Both the forced guests of La Condesa and their relatives find unacceptable the responses they receive every time they highlight a problem, always getting the excuse that "this is Cuba", as if leaving to the providence an issue that concerns, first and foremost, Canadian public servants, and as if she were "protecting the Cuban government instead of protecting Canadians," one of the prisoners said.

Another concern shared by family members and prisoners alike is the right to probation or conditional release at half term of the sentence that the Cuban Criminal Law recognizes, which is not being applied to Canadians. "Canadians are not granted transfer nor conditional release, they have to serve the entire time of the sentence," says the daughter of one of the La Condesa prisoners.

In addition to the flies in the dining room, digestive problems from poor water and diet quality at La Condesa, Nadesu's lack of diabetes medication, Buttar's dermatological ailment, and Stephan and Tomlin's aggravated health problems, what really worries these Canadian citizens is the poor handling of their situation by their own embassy, ​​despite the fact that the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister has denied that her government has neglected these citizens.

Canadian media reports claimed in 2019 that Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland had discussed Tomlin's case with her Cuban counterpart and that "she could 'not disagree more strongly' with the assertion that Canada doesn’t help its citizens abroad."

Apart from the demands of family and friends, there is the blog La Gran Prisión (The Big Prison), which shows documents and stories that, according to its author, belong to real cases of former foreign prisoners in Cuba who denounced irregularities in criminal prosecution, the addition of legal charges and the imposition of fines and sentences that - in the opinion of those involved - are excessive.

To complicate matters further, other factors are added that conspire against citizens and diplomatic services alike. First, the mysterious symptoms of nine Canadian diplomats and their relatives in Cuba due to the so-called "sonic attacks" or “Havana syndrome”, have hampered the running of its embassy and created a tense climate in the Cuba-Canada relations, as well as in the island's relations with the United States.

A drama compounded by the pandemic

Then came COVID-19, which has prevented the regular flow of Canadian officials to and from Cuba and has plunged the Cuban economy into a catastrophic crisis. If the lack of medicines and essential supplies throughout the island is well known, it is not surprising that the prisons also lack the necessary medicines and hygiene products. In addition to all this, there is the current risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Screenshot of a Facebook post by Daphne, Nadesu’s daughter.

Although the Canadian authorities have assured the relatives of the inmates of La Condesa that there are no cases of COVID-19 in the prison, the more than 40 guards who come and go every day, pose as a risk factor or, at least, it is what those who live and have access to this place say, especially since the cases in the province of Mayabeque, where this prison is located, are now rising.

Mayabeque was one of the provinces that recently experienced a decline from the recovery phase to local transmission phase, "it maintains the upward trend in positive cases and has a rate of 64.9 per 100,000 inhabitants", according to official reports from the Cuban Ministry of Public Health.

At the center of this complex situation are the human rights to which Canadian citizens and all those who inhabit La Condesa today should be able to aspire, regardless of the sentences, unjust or otherwise, that weigh upon them. A humane way to address the deterioration of the health conditions manifested by their prisoners, consists in the transfer of these citizens to their country. This is the motive of the protagonists of this story and is summarized in the last message received from there: "We are not going to stop ... we will continue to get the word out one way or another."

In response to an email on this matter, a spokesperson for the Canadian Embassy in Cuba told CiberCuba that “Consular officials are providing assistance to detained Canadians in Cuba. Due to the provisions of the Privacy Act, no further information can be disclosed.”

The Canadian official has also provided a link to the website of the Government of Canada where consular services and assistance are detailed, including emergencies and matters related to the situation of Canadian citizens detained in Cuba.

CiberCuba also contacted a third lawyer who represented another one of the prisoners, but he declined to comment to the press.

The Cuban Ministry of Interior (MININT) has not responded to a message from CiberCuba about living conditions in La Condesa.

* All translations from Spanish to English made for this article are the responsibility of the journalist.

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Annarella Grimal

Annarella O'Mahony (o Grimal). Aprendiz de ciudadana, con un título de Máster otorgado por la Universidad de Limerick (Irlanda). Ya tuvo hijos, adoptó una mascota, plantó un árbol, y publicó un libro.

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