The Cuban backlash
Detainee controversy sparks political row
By Candia Dames
Guardian News Editor
Nassau, The Bahamas
The matter of an obviously fake video purporting to show Cubans being abused at the detention center has exploded into a nasty and venomous spat between the Official Opposition and Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell.
In a stunning but not completely surprising display of bad judgment, Opposition Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis called an emergency press conference last Wednesday to announce he had concluded that at least five Cuban detainees were abused back in May.
Prime Minister Perry Christie later said Minnis was bordering on “gross stupidity”.
Mitchell accused the opposition of “siding with enemies of The Bahamas against Bahamians”.
The urgency of the tone of the FNM official advising of the press conference suggested that the party was set to release damning evidence to force major action of some kind — possibly the minister’s resignation.
No such evidence was produced, but Minnis was strong in his conclusions that the Bahamian people had been kept in the dark over an issue that has spilled into the international arena and is threatening the country’s reputation.
Minnis accused Mitchell of keeping this information under wraps and using “strong, combative and undiplomatic language intended to deflect attention from the underlying legitimacy of the issue raised by the demonstrators” in Miami in recent weeks.
Mitchell, meanwhile, prayed for “the patience of Job” as he fired back at Minnis, accusing him and the Free National Movement of being “unpatriotic” and “un-Bahamian”.
The foreign affairs minister also denied that there was a cover-up in relation to abuse claims against Cuban detainees.
He accused the FNM of “talking a jumble of foolishness” and prayed that its “allies in the press do not go walking into a place where fools have rushed in”.
This was followed by a warning from Mitchell that he will be watching every word and accusation.
“And if they miss and make one false allegation or innuendo we will see them in court”.
Minnis reported that the FNM found that in the early hours of May 20, 2013, there was an attempted escape from the detention center by seven Cuban detainees. This escape attempt was prevented.
As punishment for the attempted escape, at least five detainees were physically abused to a severe degree, he said.
The abuse was so significant that three of the detainees had to be taken to Princess Margaret Hospital for treatment.
One person was detained and two others returned to the detention center.
Following the beatings, the remaining detainees performed and videotaped a reenactment of the earlier beatings, according to Minnis.
“Our information is that the reenactment was facilitated with the assistance of one or more Defence Force officers who provided the fatigues for the actors in the performance,” he said.
“The FNM has been further advised that several senior government officials and ministers became aware fairly early that a major instance of abuse had in fact taken place.
“There was at least one major meeting of senior law enforcement officers and Cabinet ministers who were briefed as to what had transpired. As a result of that briefing, a more intensive investigation was ordered.”
Minnis said the FNM is aware that the report of the government’s preliminary investigation has been completed and is in circulation. He said this has been completed from as early as late June.
The videotape in question was aired on a Spanish language TV station in Florida. It sparked weeks of protests against The Bahamas in Miami by a group called the Democracy Movement.
Mitchell first reported on this videotape in a statement on June 17.
He said, “We have had the video examined by the Royal Bahamas Defence Force, and it is being further reviewed by the Royal Bahamas Police Force.”
Mitchell noted — and we agree — that the video is a complete falsehood and an outrageous concoction.
“There appears to be a manufactured attempt to create a damaging and defamatory impression of The Bahamas,” he said.
“The television station ought to be ashamed of itself for publishing something which is so patently false.”
The foreign affairs minister added, “It remains to be said that The Bahamas government does not beat those in its custody. All detainees are treated with respect and in accordance with all applicable conventions and with human dignity and courtesy.”
Mitchell also said in that statement that a follow up investigation was being done to seek to find out if by some remote chance there is any aspect of this that bears a scintilla of truth.
At this point, there is much that is unclear about this matter. What is clear is that the government has repeatedly said that it is investigating abuse claims, and both the government and opposition agree that the video that sparked the outrage in Florida is in fact fake.
Mitchell has said, and Prime Minister Christie has reiterated, that the Government of The Bahamas does not condone abusing detainees and the “chips will fall where they may” after an investigation.
Admittedly, it has been at times hard to follow the trail that led to this current controversy.
There was no immediate report about the alleged incident at the detention center. It came a week later after the media made inquiries.
In the brief statement issued on May 31, the Department of Immigration said a Cuban detainee escaped from the detention center during severe thunderstorms a week earlier.
“In response to press inquiries, we wish to advise the public that during the rain storm in Nassau last week, there was an attempt to escape the detention center at Carmichael Road. All were prevented from escaping, but one person,” the statement read.
The statement did not say that detainees had to be hospitalized.
Cuban Ambassador to The Bahamas Ernesto Soberon Guzman told The Nassau Guardian after that statement was released that no one from the government had contacted him about the incident.
Guzman later said that Mitchell failed to inform him until June 19 about the matter.
He called it a “communications break down”.
Guzman said during his meeting with the minister, Mitchell said officers used some degree of force to counteract the attempted escape.
He said he was told that in the process, three Cuban detainees were injured and hospitalized.
Guzman’s revelation was made in The Nassau Guardian on June 21, one month after the alleged incident.
According to Guzman, Mitchell said the incident had nothing to do with the controversial video that purported to show Cuban detainees being beaten by Bahamian law enforcement officers.
When asked if he was satisfied with the explanation, Guzman said, “That was what they informed us.
“In this case, we have a particular situation. Some people tried to escape from the detention center and they used force, and now I have to check if the force was excessive or not.”
But Mitchell has been careful in his public utterances on the matter, staying clear of acknowledging any abuse or hospitalization.
He repeated last week after Minnis’ press conference that the entire matter is being reviewed by a retired justice of the Court of Appeal and a leading cleric.
Mitchell said when the investigations are complete the government will act. He repeated, “The chips will fall where they may.”
But the FNM is demanding that the government release the full, unedited report into any investigation that has already been conducted to date.
Christie has said that Minnis’ comments could give the international community the impression that there is a division in The Bahamas on the controversial issue.
The comments had the immediate effect of the Democracy Movement spokesman calling for Mitchell’s removal from handling this issue.
It is important to acknowledge that Mitchell had opportunities to table in Parliament the preliminary report completed by law enforcement authorities.
The government has instead decided to have a more extensive probe.
On the weekend, a photo purportedly showing the severe injuries of an abused Cuban detainee made the rounds on Facebook after it was posted by activist Rodney Moncur.
Its authenticity could not be verified.
But there is acknowledgement from sources inside the government that some of the Cubans had to be hospitalized. One assumes there are hospital records the investigators will have access to.
It has now been more than three months since the alleged incident occurred.
The government must strike the balance between having a thorough investigation concluded and ensuring the matter does not drag on for much longer that it worsens any perceptions of a cover-up.
It seems the controversy has dragged on too long. The public deserves answers on what transpired at the detention center in May or any other time if it involved abuse.
Transparent reporting and punishing of any officer who may be guilty of wrongdoing are indeed keys to bringing this row to an end.
This would send the right message to the international community as well.
It would have been in the national interest and in the interest of the opposition for its leader to first deal with the government privately on any concerns, or evidence he has to prove his claims of a cover-up.
Many people have grown weary of the sparring over this issue. They want answers and finality.
The war of words between the government and the opposition has created unnecessary noise, and even confusion as the country’s reputation hangs in the balance.
What is required at this time is a unified voice on our foreign policy. In the opposition party itself, there are deep divisions on how the claims have been aired.
Political theatrics and efforts to show up the minister or the government must at all times take a backseat to the national interest.
This was a view expressed privately by several prominent FNMs after their leader’s statement.
The possible emergence of a report confirming abuse might not be enough to vindicate Minnis on this one.
Leadership requires good judgment. On that score, he has so far fallen short.
August 26, 2013