Lady in White
In prison since: March 11, 2018
Sentenced: 4 years and 6 months of prison on August 29, 2018
Charges: Contempt and Resistance
Correctional Facility: El Guatao Provincial Women's Prison, Havana Province
The last photograph of Martha Sánchez was taken on a Sunday. Dressed in white, Martha set out for her local church accompanied by a group of women, all of whom were also wearing all white. They were on their way to attend Mass, but they were also carrying protest signs. The Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) are a group of activists, most of them wives and relatives of political prisoners, who protest weekly to demand freedom for Cuba’s prisoners of conscience. Although she did not have any relatives in prison, Martha joined the group in 2014 to demand freedom of expression and democracy, having suffered police harassment, a threat to evict her from her home and other human rights violations at the hands of the State.
On March 11, 2018, the Damas de Blanco set out for San Marcos parish. They were met along the way by State Security agents who blocked their path
Martha began to shout, “Down with Cuba’s electoral farce,” “Down with the Castros,” and “Freedom for political prisoners!” In the eyes of the authorities, these words were a crime; Martha and the other Damas were immediately detained. In the last photo taken of Martha, she is surrounded by three State Security agents, trying to pull away as they arrest her.
Arrest and Trial
Martha was taken to the National Revolutionary Police’s office in Artemisa, where she was threatened, mistreated and beaten. According to her brother Joaquín Sánchez, a police official told her, “now we’re really going to make you disappear.” This was not the first time that Martha had been threatened. Ever since she began to protest, she had been routinely surveilled, fined and detained. “State Security was always threatening to take her to prison,” says Joaquín.
On April 6, 2018, Martha was transferred to the women’s prison in Havana, and not long after was brought to trial for the crimes of “contempt,” “defamation” and “resistance.” According to her brother, the prosecutor argued that Martha had disrespected a police officer and “defamed national heroes.”
Three months later, after a rigged and unfair trial, Martha was found guilty of “contempt” and “resistance.” Martha had to rely on a state-appointed defense lawyer rather than her own, was tried in private despite Cuba’s Constitutional requirement for public trials and was not allowed to present evidence or witnesses in her defense. In clear violation of her right to freedom of expression, she was sentenced to 4 years and 6 months in prison, one of the longest sentences among Cuba’s female political prisoners.
The judge claimed that my sister had been previously arrested for robbery and that she was an alcoholic,” remembers Joaquín, although neither of these claims was true. “My sister is a good person with a good heart; she is beloved by everyone she meets in the street.
Martha is currently serving her sentence in the women’s prison known as “El Guatao” in the La Lisa neighborhood of Havana. She is allowed a phone call with her four children (41, 39, 37 and 18 years old) and other relatives every Monday. She can receive a family visit every 21 days.
According to Joaquín, her phone calls are very short and do not allow the family to learn much about the prison conditions. “If you say too much, they will take away your phone privileges,” he says. What Martha’s family does know is that in general, the conditions are “awful.” The prison lacks proper healthcare and medicine, and mistreatment by the guards is common.
On visiting days, Joaquín wakes up at 2:00 am to prepare the food and other necessities that he will bring to Martha. He departs at 5:00 am to travel over 35 miles from his home and arrive to the prison on time. Although visiting time is supposed to last two hours, prison staff often delay the registration process to cut into the prisoners’ time. All visits are monitored by State Security agents. Joaquín acknowledges that his efforts to support Martha are “a big sacrifice,” as he also has to care for his own family.
On several occasions, State Security has proposed to Martha that she can be freed if she writes a statement denouncing the Damas de Blanco. Martha has refused.
Martha’s youngest daughter, now 18 years old, still cries when she thinks of her mother’s unjust detention, while her older siblings also suffer harassment by State agents.
“As a family, we demand that Cuba respect my sister’s rights and that these injustices come to an end,” concludes Joaquín.