Piece about recent conviction of a US citizen in Cuba
How US Can Prevent Future Unjust Imprisonments and Arbitrary Detentions of Americans by Cuba and Others.
In early October, a US citizen and her husband, a former Cuban diplomat, were sentenced to 13 and 17 years respectively on charges of espionage by a military court in Havana. This sentencing follows the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats from the United States by the State Department, after Cuba failed to protect US diplomatic personnel from repeated sonic attacks on its territory. This news went largely unnoticed by U.S. media and thus elicited no outrage or condemnation by the international community, nor public expressions of concern by the State Department.
Cuba has a long and sordid history of arresting critics, dissidents, and foreigners on trumped up national security charges. Alan Gross is but the most famous of foreigners who spent years in Cuban prison for humanitarian work and assistance in civil engagement. Cuban government had engaged in a campaign of extortion, and finally released Mr. Gross, after US paid over $3 million in settlement. It seems that the Castro regime was less concerned about the assault on its law than about getting a hefty renumeration for its own pockets. President Trump acted to restrict tourist travel to Cuba for American citizens in June, but that still leaves 12 categories of travel legal and does not address the issue of American citizens who are already in Cuba. In other words, US nationals continue to travel to Cuba for various, entirely valid reasons, and yet are subject to arbitrary detentions, imprisonment on trumped up charges, denial of medical treatment in Cuban jails, and abuse of all kinds.
The Alan Gross case had worked in Cuba’s favor and set a precedent of successful use of Americans as hostage, whose release can be negotiated for financial and political boons. President Obama’s shift in policy, normalizing the diplomatic relations between the two countries did little to address the Castro regime’s illegitimate use of the justice system to secure payments for prisoners, that under normal circumstances would be considered a form of racketeering under US RICO statutes. Two years after normalization, this shift in policy has failed to empower and enrich millions of Cubans unaffiliated with the Castro regime, has not only not fixed the deplorable human rights situation but actually led to a crackdown on human rights activists, caused medical concerns for US diplomats in Cuba, and in general, and with respect to anyone and anything excepting the wealthiest crony investors, has misfired “big league”.
The worst of it for the US is that Cuba continues to play it both ways – demands legitimacy accorded to it by the normalized relations, while also continuing to use Americans as pawns against the US government. This latest conviction is not only a perverse tit-for-tat in retaliation for the expulsion of the Cuban diplomats from the United States, but a reminder that Cuba, despite being smaller, weaker, and known for its support of terrorists and rogue regimes from all over the world, still has the upper hand in its relations with the United States. Cuba can detain, convict, and abuse Americans and the US will play right into its hands, because the US values human life and the Castro regime does not. US is willing to go to extreme lengths to secure the release of its unjustly held citizens and permanent residents, whereas for Cuba, a person is only worth as much as the regime can get in payment for his release. And until recently, short of banning all travel to Cuba, we were powerless to do anything about it, because we have no leverage short of going along with the demands of the extortionist regime and exchanging prisoners or paying money. We are not willing to engage in the same terrorist behavior and hold Cuban diplomats or citizens hostages here just to secure the release of American nationals.
But what recourse do we have under such circumstances? It appearance that we do have a path forward that does not include negotiations with an illegitimate revolutionary regime that thinks nothing of extortionist abductions to further its goals. After examining existing human rights laws on the books, I discovered that:
* Currently, there are no laws, nor pending bills that would penalize states or individuals or entities responsible for arbitrary detentions, arrests, denial of medical treatment, or torture against US citizens and permanent residents.
* The only legislative requirements associated with US prisoners in other countries are regular reporting requirements by the President to Congress, which obviously do not do much to assist those in need.
* Currently, there are at least 10 US citizens & permanent residents held captive in Iran, at least 4 in North Korea, at least one in Turkey, and just this weekend, there has been news of conviction of a US citizen on Cuba on espionage charges, resulting in a 13 year sentence.
* In the past, US citizens have been held or convicted on trumped up charges, denied medical treatment, and brutally tortured in a number of countries. Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Turkey have all used the imprisonment of these individuals to extort political and financial concessions from the United States.
* One solution to this legislative gap would be a law incorporating Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act type language, that would would assert visa cancelations and asset freezes for any individuals and entities associated with unjust treatment of US nationals. That would include judges, prison guards, wardens, torturers, and doctors involved in denial of life-saving medical treatment in prisons.
* Such legislation would essentially ostracize anyone involved in such activity on the basis of their unconscionable actions, and not simply for the fact of membership in an organization such as IRGC. Organizations can dissolve or be renamed; many of the people involved in the lawless arrests and imprisonment of Americans are not members of any political organizations, and yet contribute to this gross injustice.
* In addition to making such people unwelcome in the international arena, and denying them the possibility of utilizing the US banking system, as well as providing a bit of justice for the survivors and for the families of people who have gone missing or died as a result of actions by these state enablers (such as Bob Levinson and Otto Warmbier), this legislation would likely positively affect the outcome of hostage negotiations by giving the executive branch additional leverage in conducting these talks. Currently, we have no leverage and as a result have been forced to either admit defeat and retreat or to grant concessions which only encourage what ultimately amounts to terrorist behavior.
* Another positive aspect of this legislation is making these countries safe for travel. Executive actions are currently preventing US citizens from traveling to countries such as North Korea, and strong travel warnings and restrictions have been placed on Cuba and other places. Visas have are not being issues for travel to Turkey. Such actions ultimately only hurt the idea of freedom of travel, which is central to a functioning democracy, and are only necessary because currently there is no other way of providing for the basic security of those traveling to these countries. Such measures are inimical to health people-to-people relations and any possibility of business, cultivating individual relationships, or frankly, even liberalizing such countries through their exposure to Western ideas and private initiatives. A much better way of ensuring security for Westerners is attacking the cause of all problems – extortionist state action, which endangers travelers. Legislation that penalizes those who benefit from such extortion would disincentivize these states from further engaging in such actions, deter abductions, and make US travels restrictions less necessary.
And while the audience considers the upsides of taking legislative action that would empower our negotiators and reduce the power of racketeering regimes over the United States, I hope the White House considers highlighting this case of a gross miscarriage of justice, publicly denounces the Castro regime’s extortion, shuts down the US embassy in Cuba until further notice, and expels the remaining diplomats from the United States. There is no reason why the enablers and servants of the Castro regime should continue to be treated as legitimate actors by the international community while continuing to engage in illegitimate actions and unjust convictions of foreigners. Civilians are not, and should never be, fair game during diplomatic tensions, and this instant conviction for “spying” that has come so shortly after the expulsion of Cuban diplomats from the US, should be no exception.
Irina Tsukerman ।। National security attorney based in Newyork