Recollections of Police Extortion: A “Rebar”
HAVANA, Cuba – I recently participated in a course on Criminal Procedure taught by Dr. Wilfredo Vallin, an independent lawyer, to members of civil society. We learned what the law requires and how police are supposed to act when making stops, searches, seizures, or arrests.
Each one of us there related some personal experience of police misconduct. Dr. Vallin explained to us in each case what kind of violation of the law had been committed by the officers. We finally reached the conclusion that ignorance of citizens’ rights is the primary cause that encourages these infractions.
We learned that to carry out the search of a home, a warrant signed by a prosecutor and two witnesses is needed. The search warrant must describe the “specific object” being sought: they cannot seize any property other than that “specific object.” In addition, everything seized must appear on a list, and a copy must be delivered to the person affected. The confiscations must be presented in court, and if invalidated must be returned.
We had a slew of examples of violations of this law. As with the other one, Dr. Vallin explained: on the street, only a uniformed police officer can stop you, never a plainclothes officer. And to perform a search a police officer must present a warrant, or else take you to a police station and search you there. This is a law that is violated in Cuba every day; just ask the hundreds of street vendors who are stopped, searched, and deprived of their property in full public view.
We also learned that you cannot be detained in a police station for more than twenty-four hours without an arrest warrant. After that time an investigator must be assigned to you, who has three days to present the prosecutor with a report of the completed investigation. The prosecutor has three more days to issue a decision—of a fine, detention, or immediate release. Many of those attending the course complained of spending days in a jail cell without any compliance with this law.
I remembered the meetings of the Agenda for Transition, in Jaimanita. And how they detained me when I left my house in the morning so I could not cover the news! They locked me in a cell in the 5th precinct station, popularly known as “The Warehouse,” along with other dissidents also prevented from attending the meeting. Without a word of explanation, they left us among dozens of common prisoners until late afternoon. Then the “file folder” (receptionist) called us one by one, gave us our identity cards and let us go.
I also remembered the time I was on a corner in Old Havana, talking with my friends “El Mapa” and “Pulu,” when I saw boy dressed in a school uniform coming down the sidewalk, followed by a row of detainees. In his hand he was carrying a bundle of identity documents and asked us for ours and told us to get in the line.
I was stunned, watching how the men meekly followed single file toward the police station in Dragones, but when I started to protest, “El Mapa” told me:
“Don’t even open your mouth! He’s a policeman disguised as a student . . . and he’s vicious! Now they’re going to lock us up and search us . . . then they’ll let us go for a ’rebar.’”
Without understanding anything I followed the line to a vast courtyard inside the station. A captain ordered us to stand facing the wall and empty our pockets. We complied. They didn’t find any drugs, or weapons, or anything that would incriminate the men against the wall, who didn’t let out a peep.
Then he left, and we sat on the stones in the yard or on the floor, helpless, without an arrest warrant, without having committed any crime, and not knowing how to assert our rights . . . or to whom.
After a while I saw that the men began to leave, one by one. Before leaving, “Pulu” passed me the sign: the passage to the street cost a “rebar” (1 cuc, national currency equivalent to one dollar). This was well-known in the neighborhood about their police, but I, who believe that bribery is one of our worst crimes, was not going to contribute to it.
I remained alone in the yard, with three other poor devils who had no “rebar.” Our passport to freedom that afternoon was to carry a heavy iron tank between the four of us and load it on a wooden cart in the kitchen.
Afterward they handed us back our documents. Without even thanking us for loading the tank on the cart.
Cubanet, April 4, 2014
Translated by Tomás A.