Cuba: blind Christian human rights activist on trial

 A blind Christian human rights activist is being put on trial next week in Cuba after spending 18 months in prison. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has called on the Cuban government to permit the presence of international and impartial observers at the trial. Sources in Cuba told CSW that the Cuban government informed his wife that he would be tried in the first days of November along with the other nine men and women with whom he was originally arrested. The Cuban government has requested that he be sentenced to six years in prison. Juan Carlos Gonzalez Leiva, who was arrested on March 4 2002 along with a number of human rights activists, has reported continued ill-health and mistreatment at the hands of the prison authorities. In a letter dated September 16 2003 he stated that he was feeling "very ill with bronchial congestion, head and eye pain, burning sensation in my nasal passages, as well as an itching and tingling sensation all over my skin that prevents me from getting any sleep." Gonzalez Leiva was formally charged with 'public disorder, disobedience, resisting authority and acts of disrespect' late in summer 2002 but has not been given a trial until now. The Cuban government never gave a reason for the delay but observers believe the government has been concerned due to the high level of international attention his case has received. During his arrest Juan Carlos was severely beaten by government security agents and suffered a blow to the head, which required four stitches. He and a number of other human rights activists had gathered at a local hospital in an attempt to draw attention to the plight of a journalist who had been admitted there after being attacked by Cuban police. The group entered the hospital where they proceeded to pray for the hospitalised reporter and shouted slogans like "Up with human rights" and "Long live Christ the King". They then sat down in a side hallway in silent protest. An hour later the group was surrounded by the rapid response unit of the local security forces, who beat them before taking them into custody. Juan Carlos has carried out a number of lengthy hunger strikes to protest his arrest and his health has suffered greatly as a result. Juan Carlos is also a lawyer and has been active in the Cuban democracy movement and the Varela Project. CSW met with him three weeks before his arrest. At the time he spoke of his hope for the future of human rights and democracy in Cuba. Mervyn Thomas, CSW's Chief Executive, said: "While we are heartened the Cuban government is finally going to give Juan Carlos a trial, we are still convinced he should never have been detained in the first place. It is our hope that the United Nations and international governments will demand a presence at this trial to ensure it is fair."

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