‘If They Order You to Kill Us, Will You Do It?’ The Cuban Policeman Answered: ‘Probably’

Ermes Orta, one of the young people arrested in Sancti Spíritus because of 11J, offers his testimony to ’14ymedio’

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, On 16 July 2021, five days after the massive protests throughout Cuba, State Security forcefully entered a house on Calle Independencia #77, in Sancti Spíritus. There, they detained several young people, none of whom had gone out on the streets on 11J.

Based on private videos and audios, they were accused of criminal association and contempt. Three of them were prosecuted and sentenced to prison terms: Leodán Pérez Colón received 5 years; Yoanderley Quesada, 2 years, and Yoel Castillo, 1 year and 8 months. The others were released a few at a time during the following weeks and they testified later at the trial, held on January 18th.

Ermes Orta Bernal was one of the ones who testified. Almost a year after those events, Ermes spoke with 14ymedio by telephone from the United States, where he now resides, to offer his version. The story reveals the regime’s strategies in jailing boys who did not even protest publicly.

 “No crime was committed, it was just a punishment they wanted to inflict on the residents of Sancti Spiritus,” confirms the 20-year-old

“No crime was committed, it was just a punishment they wanted to inflict on the residents of Sancti Spiritus,” confirms the 20-year-old

Ermes tells that, after July 11th, a group of friends from Sancti Spíritus decided that they had to demonstrate peacefully once again, to demand the freedom of political prisoners Luis Mario Niedas Hernández and Alexander Fábregas. To that end, they joined a WhatsApp group called “Todos por la Libertad” and agreed to march as soon as possible.

That July 16th, at Leodán’s house, he says, “there was never a weapon, a machete, nothing, just a thermos of coffee on the table.” The police knocked on the door and entered without the residents’ consent. The boys turned their phones on and began broadcasting directly through their social networks. “We have nothing to talk about,” they told agent Orelvis Pérez Díaz, who had “taken an interest” in them for some time.

More strangers began to enter the house. Apparently, according to Ermes, State Security knew the purpose of the meeting, and had brought more people to support the arrest. “When we asked them to see an arrest warrant, they told us that it was not necessary, that they just wanted to talk.”

The atmosphere began to heat up when one of the officers discovered a recording phone and violently slammed it against a table. The boys remained calm in the face of the agent’s attitude and agreed to leave the place.

His phrase of choice was “They are ready to be transferred to Nieves Morejón,” referring to the maximum-security prison in Sancti Spiritus

“When we left the house there were a lot of people outside,” recounts Ermes, “there was police presence, many cars, people with sticks and stakes yelling “delinquents!” at us. Those people had been taken from their workplaces for an “act of revolutionary reaffirmation” against the young men, under the pretext that they had stoned the windows of a foreign exchange store.

They were transferred two by two to the Sancti Spíritus Bivouac. The cars: a police car, a Jeep and a black Geely. “We know the type of people they are, and they have been followed up,” snapped the officer who received them.

The first thing they did was to isolate them for an hour in personal dungeons less than 22 square feet in size. They were then led through a gated courtyard to the infirmary, where they were weighed and measured. They repeated the process later, with new officers, but this time they recorded them with cameras and “worked on their psychology,” according to Ermes.

Their phrase of choice was, “They are ready to be transferred to Nieves Morejón,” in reference to the maximum-security prison in Sancti Spiritus. After the medical check-up, they were kept in their cells. Little by little, they were called to interrogation rooms.

“We began to shout from dungeon to dungeon. Then an officer would come and silence us by hitting the bars hard. At night, they did the same thing with tin cans, they wouldn’t let us sleep. The interrogations were even done at dawn.”

“We did our business in a hole, a latrine, from which water came out twice a day, to be flushed. The stink was nauseating”

When Ermes read the order of disturbance in his precautionary disposition, he noticed that the document accused him of protesting on July 11th. It was difficult for him to rectify that manuscript, which also stated that they had thrown stones at the stores and had offended Díaz-Canel.

“On the third day of being locked up, they fumigated us with chlorine,” recalls Ermes. “A man came, an old man, with a chlorine gun, and he sprayed the liquid on us. I got intoxicated and told the officer: ‘I’m going to die, I’m allergic to chlorine, look what’s happening to me’. The old man replied that he didn’t care, he just did what he was told. ‘And if they send you to kill us, will you kill us?’ The policeman’s response was withering: “Probably.”

According to Ermes, the prison food was not as bad as might be expected, but the hygienic conditions were appalling. We did our business in a hole, a latrine, from which water came out twice a day, to be flushed. The stink was nauseating”

“There was a time,” he says, “when the showers were not working and we had to take some bottles that our relatives brought us. We filled them up with collected water from the trench to be able to wash ourselves.”

As the days went by, they were transferred to other cells, forming pairs with alleged 11J protesters. According to their new condition, they were assigned a number and the interrogations continued.

“They asked us who was paying us. They made us fight among ourselves. The questions were violent. They confronted each other.” The police frequently carried out nasal tests to verify if they were infected with covid-19, fumigated them with chlorine again and demanded the passwords of their phones.

“They asked us who was paying us. They made us fight among ourselves. The questions were violent”

“With all that pressure we had no choice but to deliver them.” From that moment on, the Police had access to the detainees’ messages and private photos.” They showed us naked photos of some of us, our text messages, they continued with the abuse.”

Ermes states that every day they asked the agents: “When are we leaving?” “Tomorrow,” they said, without the promise being fulfilled. Despite frequent chlorine intoxications, they were denied medical assistance.

The initial period in prison was the hardest, particularly for Yoel Castillo, who was 21 years old and is still in prison. Yoel attempted suicide twice. “After the first attempt, they took him to the infirmary where he tried again, hanging himself with a sheet. It was too much pressure for him.”

“They assigned a single lawyer to us, since “they were being so kind to us,” because the office was not working. When you went to find out who the woman was [Dunia Mariana Rodríguez del Toro], it turned out that she had been a State Security prosecutor. She ended up being the lawyer for Yoan and the others. Everything was ‘fixed’. She told us, cynically: ‘Don’t you want me to defend you?'”

Ermes Orta had a lawyer close to him: his own father, but at first, they did not allow him to serve as his attorney. Then they relented, and when he demanded to see the file, they tried to delay at all costs. Examining the documents, he realized that there was nothing of substance written, no real cause formed.

“Someone sent some photos of some machetes and some arrows through the WhatsApp group, but they immediately removed them. We did not send them. That boy was never detained, he was never in court.”

They were released a few at a time, each with a different mandate. Ermes was accused of contempt and conspiracy to commit a crime, without any evidence of violent acts. “It was a mousetrap, to teach everybody a lesson,” he concludes.

“On the record, they even accuse us of wanting to attack a police station in Sancti Spíritus. Six boys! No one believes that”

As a requirement for his phone to be returned, he had to pay a fine. The trial, held in January of this year, was a farce. The accused were called one by one, and the alleged witnesses did not even know them. The courtroom was filled with State Security officers, informers and policemen.

“On the record they even accuse us of wanting to attack a police station in Sancti Spíritus. Six boys! No one believes that. It’s a joke.”

Since he was in high school, in 2019, Ermes Orta was in the sights of State Security. When the long lines began during the pandemic and he denounced the situation on his social networks, an officer began to “observe” him. He was kicked out of boxing training for having “the Statue of Liberty tattooed on his ribcage.” They sanctioned him and, after the events of July 16th, warned him that he was “regulated.” [Ed. note: A euphemism meaning forbidden to travel.]

“You put up with jail, but when you get out, your friends’ parents ask you not to see them anymore. Then, since no business in Cuba is clean, the people you work with tell you: ‘Don’t come here anymore, because you’re going to have me marked.’ And one needs to understand.”

State Security began to harass him with the idea of leaving the country. They put pressure on his mother, who ended up crying every day. “The only way we are going to leave you alone is if you leave,” they told him.

His brother spent a lot of money from the United States on two flights through Copa Airlines, but the company canceled his ticket days before Ermes could board. Finally, he left the Island on January 27th, through Aruba, on a charter flight. He had to leave his 8-month-old son behind.

“What happened in Sancti Spíritus to us and with those who are still imprisoned was an injustice. After 11J Cuba has gotten much worse and they knew it. That’s why they turned on the valve. But people are no longer afraid because they have children and they don’t want the same for them.”

In exile, where he is preparing to debut as a professional boxer, Ermes says that he has understood what freedom, democracy and the possibility of having a future means. “That same freedom,” he asserts, “is what I want for Cuba.”

Translated by Norma Whiting


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