Cuban Church Leader Released, Cleared of Charges

A respected Cuban church leader who was unexpectedly arrested and tried in court last week has been cleared of all charges, reported a Christian human rights group Monday.

After his accusers gave contradictory evidence against him in court, the Rev. Roberto Rodriguez was found not guilty of "threatening behavior" and allowed to return to his family, reported U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

"CSW welcomes the news that Reverend Rodriguez was found not guilty of the charges against him," commented CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas, whose organization called on Cuban authorities to release Rodriguez last week.

The 67-year-old pastor, who is in poor health, is now recuperating at home.

According to reports, Rodriguez became a government target after the organization he led publicly withdrew from a government-sanctioned religious umbrella group in the second half of 2008.

Later that year, the first charges were brought against Rodriguez, and though he was given three trial dates over the course of 2009, no trial ever took place. Over the last 21 months, Rodriguez has been under house arrest.

"The treatment that Reverend Rodriguez, a respected national leader and pastor for 48 years, has endured over the past two years, simply because his organization resisted attempts by the government to interfere in their internal affairs, is a disgrace," stated Windsor.

And when Rodriguez was arrested without warning last week, CSW called on Cuban authorities to release him and also sought intervention from the European Union, which will be looking at the human rights situation and reviewing its Common Position on Cuba this month.

"While some heralded the release of some Cuban prisoners of conscience this summer as an improvement in the human rights situation, the arrest of Reverend Rodriguez this week demonstrates that the Cuban government is not interested in real human rights reform," Windsor stated following Rodriguez's arrest.

According to Rodriguez's family, state security officials arrived at their home without warning on Aug. 30 and forced Rodriguez to go with them. The arrest was so sudden that Rodriguez was reportedly unable to take important medication with him.

It was feared that without the medication, the pastor's health would continue to deteriorate.

Following his arrest, Rodriguez was reportedly forced to hitchhike with the two officials from Cardenas to Santa Clara, where they arrived at 1 a.m. The following day, Rodriguez and the officials traveled to the town of Placetas in Central Cuba, where the pastor stood trial on Sept. 2.

During the trial, prosecutors recommended that Rodriguez be given a one-year prison sentence for "offensive behavior" and "threats."

In the end, however, the court found the pastor to be not guilty in light of contradictory evidence given by his accusers. Still, the court handed down a fine to the church leader for reasons that were unclear.

CSW believes that the criminal charges against Rodriguez were part of an attempt to discredit and silence him. Over the last 21 months, the pastor's family suffered verbal and physical abuse from their neighbors and their house was vandalized. CSW alleges that attacks were done with the support of the government.

"CSW calls on the Cuban government to ensure that restitution is made to the family for the damage caused to their house by their now discredited accusers," Windsor stated Monday.

The organization also called on the government to allow Rodriguez's family to return to their home "with the full guarantees of protection that are their right as Cuban citizens."

According to the U.S. State Department's latest Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom, the Cuban constitution recognizes the right of citizens to profess and practice any religious belief within the framework of respect for the law; however, in law and in practice, the government places restrictions on freedom of religion.

The government continued to exert control over all aspects of social life, including religious expression, during the state department's most recent reporting period, according to the 2009 report.

The state department did, however, note that reports of harassment declined slightly, although government harassment of religious organizations continued.

The U.S. government has urged international pressure on the Cuban government to promote religious freedom and other human rights.