© Reuters. A police officer stops a car carrying diplomats from driving to court where Cuban leader of dissident art group Otero Alcantara and rapper Michael Castillo are on trial for public disorder, defamation of public institutions and national coexistence.


By Dave Sherwood

HAVANA (Reuters) – Two Cuban dissident artists on Monday faced their first trial on Monday after being arrested nearly a year ago in an ongoing trial that rights groups have described as a “farce” and a “circus”.

The activists, Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara and Michael Castillo, are prominent members of the Havana-based San Isidro Movement, an artist group that led several protests before many of the group’s members left Cuba over the alleged repression.

Otero Alcantara faces charges of defamation of the national flag, contempt and public disorder and faces 7 years in prison, according to a March 8 court suit obtained by Reuters; The court document shows that Castillo, the rapper also known as Osorbo, was also charged with assault and faces 10 years.

Otero Alcantara and Castillo appeared in the music video for “Patria e Vida,” a defiant hip-hop song that became the unofficial “anthem” of the large-scale anti-government protests on July 11 that are believed to be the largest since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.

Police and security forces surrounded the courthouse in Havana early Monday morning. An official at the International Press Center in Cuba told Reuters that a small group of family members were allowed into the courtroom.

Representatives from Havana embassies from several European countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Norway and Sweden, crowded into the courthouse for about two hours, waiting for admission after their entry request and practical observation.

“We were not allowed to enter the courtroom,” the German embassy representative said before leaving. The actor asked not to be named and refused to reveal why the group was denied access to the courtroom.

“We want to respect human rights everywhere and in all countries,” the diplomat said.

The Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the trials or explain why access to the courtroom was restricted.

Cuban state media, including the ruling Communist Party newspaper Granma, described the San Isidro movement led by Castillo and Otero Alcantara as part of a US-led “soft coup”, allegations it denied.

The two men’s cases have become a source of concern for activists and human rights groups who claim Cuba has escalated its repression in the wake of last July’s protests.

Human Rights Watch used social media last week to describe the Otero Alcantara and Castillo trials as a “farce”, while Amnesty International called them a “circus”.

Cuba stated that detainees before and after the July 11 protests received fair trials in accordance with Cuban law.

The streets outside the courtroom were quiet all day. Several activists and friends of the men said on social media that they were under state security surveillance and were prevented from leaving their homes.

Maritza Herrera, 66, said she had come to show her support for her friends Otero Alcantara and Castillo. She said that others were either prevented or did not dare to do so.

“They know that when they get here, they will be put into a secret car and taken to a police station. That is not why they are here.”