News Column

Bahamas Planned to Send Detainees Back to Cuba, Group Says

August 16, 2013

The Bahamas government Thursday started _ then stopped _ the repatriation of 24 undocumented Cuban migrants, including eight who have been offered asylum in Panama, according to a Miami group that has been supporting the Cubans.

The 24 were told early Thursday that they were being returned to Cuba, and were handcuffed and put on buses at the Migrant Detention Center in Nassau, said Democracy Movement chief Ramon Saul Sanchez, who on Monday had called off a hunger strike backing the migrants.

"We immediately contacted the U.S. and Panamanian government and others and just 15 minutes ago we learned the repatriation had been stopped and that the people are back in the center's dining room," he said Thursday afternoon. "At least we stopped the repatriation for now, although we retain the option of renewing the hunger strike."

But Sanchez said late Thursday that his group had been told the detainees would be repatriated Friday.

The status of Cuban detainees was scheduled to be discussed further Monday at a meeting of Bahamas Foreign Affairs and Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell; Guillermo Cochez, former Panama ambassador to the Organization of American States; Miami lawyer Lorenzo Palomares; and Miami banker Raymond Molina.

Bahamian authorities are holding 50 undocumented Cubans at the migration center. Most were intercepted as they tried to make their way to the U.S. At least three already lived in the U.S. and were suspected of people smuggling.

Several have staged strident protests against conditions at the detention center and the possibility of repatriations. Four sewed their lips together and several filmed a cellphone video last month allegedly showing a center guard kicking at the detainees. Mitchell has said the video is fake.

Eight of the Cubans involved in the video were among the 24 put on the buses. Democracy Movement activists said they suspected the attempted repatriation was "an action deceitful and intended to hide the torture of human beings."

Nineteen detainees offered asylum by Panama were "the most abused" at the center, Sanchez said.

Panama said Monday that it had agreed to offer "territorial asylum" to the 19 as a humanitarian gesture to spare them from a return to Cuba. The Bahamas at the same time said it would investigate the presumed abuses and improve conditions at the detention center.

Detainees at the center _ Haitians, Brazilians, Colombians, Chinese and others as well as Cubans _ have long complained about conditions there. But the Democracy Movement had called for a tourist boycott of the Bahamas and staged several high-visibility protests.

Sanchez and Jesus Alexis Gomez ended Miami hunger strikes Monday after 17 and 24 days respectively.

Sanchez said that as soon as he heard about the planned repatriations Thursday _ some of the detainees have smuggled cellphones _ the Democracy Movement issued a public complaint and requested a permit to set up a protest tent in front of the Bahamian Consulate in Miami.

A statement issued later Thursday by the Bahamas' Foreign Ministry said the U.S. Diplomatic Protection Service had informed the consulate of "a specific threat by a specific individual ... which has necessitated additional layers of security at the consulate."

"Bahamians in Miami are further advised to exercise reasonable caution during this period in Miami," the statement added.


(c)2013 The Miami Herald

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Source: Copyright Miami Herald (FL) 2013

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