February 17, 2012 / 1:21 AM / 8 years ago

Cuban dissident testifies by phone to U.S. Congress

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - One of Cuba’s leading dissidents, Oscar Elias Biscet, testified by telephone from Cuba on Thursday to the U.S. Congress and said the international community did not seem to understand that human rights violations continued there.

Cuban dissident Oscar Elias Biscet walks with his wife, Elsa Morejon, as he flashes a victory sign to reporters after a meeting with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in Havana March 30, 2011. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan/Files

“The Cuba in which I live is a society full of fear,” Biscet said, speaking from the U.S. interests section in Havana to a joint meeting of two House of Representatives subcommittees.

“The human rights violations need to be expressed further to the international community, because they seem to be not getting the point, or understanding that this is really happening,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.

The connection was lost and restored several times as Biscet’s voice was broadcast via speaker phone to a Capitol Hill hearing room.

Biscet, 50, a medical doctor, was released last March as one of the last of 52 political prisoners President Raul Castro promised to release in an accord with Cuba’s Catholic Church.

He had been first arrested in the 1990s for organizing meetings, and was jailed several times. After his fourth arrest in 2003, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison as part of a crackdown on opponents known as Cuba’s “Black Spring” that strained the Communist-led island’s international relations.

Biscet said that he had been beaten and tortured in prison; as a result, he said, his face was disfigured and his foot broken.

“Violations of human dignity” are systematically committed against all people who are incarcerated in Cuba, he said.

Among abuses he had “suffered or observed” were tortures in which naked prisoners had their hands handcuffed to their feet for 12 to 24 hours, or were handcuffed with their hands over their heads and suspended with their feet barely touching the floor for similarly long periods.

He also described abysmal prison conditions with no clean drinking water, no ventilation, and no toilets for prisoners.

For Biscet’s opposition to Cuba’s government, President George W. Bush awarded him in absentia the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. Cuban authorities view dissidents as mercenaries working for their archenemy, the United States.

The United States has maintained an economic embargo on Cuba for 50 years in order to pressure the Communist government on the island, which lies 90 miles (145 km) south of Florida.

Cuban dissidents have said there are still at least 60 people behind bars for political reasons, including some convicted of boat and plane hijackings and spying.

Asked whether he feared re-arrest because of his testimony to the U.S. Congress, Biscet said: “Everything is possible.”

He said he intended to continue non-violent efforts for change under the Castro government. “We cannot wait for someone to die to create change. We will create change on our own.”

He said he hoped that Pope Benedict would lobby for more freedoms, including freedom of speech, when the Pope visits Cuba at the end of March.

“We hope that his coming will bring great change to our country,” Biscet said.

Reporting By Susan Cornwell; Editing by Jane Sutton and Sandra Maler

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