UN Torture Investigator, Manfred Nowak, Barred From Cuban Prisons

Voices Behind the Bars, a blog from prison by Cuba's political prisoners

I heard his name for the first time last summer when a prisoner called me from Canaleta, the high security prison located about 250 miles from Havana. "We are waiting for Manfred," he told me, and when he said that unusual name he was interrupted by a prolonged noise on the line. Two days later another prisoner told me they had handed out bedsheets before the possible visit of the Special Investigator on Torture for the United Nations Human Rights Council. His visit was planned for mid-November and in the country's prisons some new things appeared. The conjugal visit pavilions got drinking water, religious services were allowed, and the schedule for phone use was actually implemented. They had to transform the grim face of those places before Manfred Nowak arrived.

The anticipation grew, especially among those who had experienced the cold cell floors and the damp walls, and felt the pain of a billy club stuck in their ribs. Many were waiting to tell him about the cramps caused by a torture known as "Shakira" where the prisoner is bound hand and foot to a chain running down his back and can only move his hips. Yamil would tell of his unjust sentence of ten years, Antonio of the dark hole - where he could barely stand up - in which they'd put him for a month, and Diosdado would relate the case of a young man beaten by the guards until they tore his esophagus and caused brain death. The dozens of victims who have seen the horror, and who would be willing to report it, waited for the expert.

"Complications in the schedule," alleged the Cuban authorities, to inform the United Nations that the visit should be postponed. The excitement returned, however, when it was announced in February of this year that the visit of the investigator who would cross the thresholds of our prisons was imminent. He is going to understand everything, thought hundreds of prisoners - and not be distracted by the hurried veneer they have tried to put on a prison system that destroys the self-respect of a person deprived of his liberty. Never had a name been so often repeated in the correctional corridors across the length and breadth of this island. It became common during the long months of waiting for a prayer to be addressed to the Austrian who has been charged, for more than five years, with revealing the dramas hidden behind bars.

The spring passed and summer was upon us, sticky with its high temperatures and multiple stresses, and Nowak never came. His third attempt to enter the national territory was met with a new evasion, perhaps the last, since his mandate ends in October. Until now our rulers in their olive-green have not allowed this specialized inspection agency to examine the prisons, because they feel that our system of incarceration "does not need an endorsement." In a statement showing his discomfort, the expert broke his silence and declared, "I regret that, in spite of its clear invitation, the government of Cuba has not allowed me to objectively assess the situation of torture and ill-treatment in the country by collecting first-hand evidence from all available sources."

In the dungeons, meanwhile, the prayers have been shut down, and those keen eyes behind the round glasses will not rummage behind the restored bunks and the aluminum trays only recently scrubbed with detergent. The sharpened instincts of someone who knows how to separate a stage set from reality, will not be able to put his skills to the test in the prison known as Combinado del Este, nor in the deteriorated installation of Aguica, and much less in the severity of Canaleta. Manfred would have realized - like those waiting for him - that is probably the reason that they will not let him come.