Monday, April 11, 2011
Six years of "back channel work" by lawyers from Sidley Austin and Hogan Lovells finally paid off earlier this month, when the Cuban government released human rights activist Oscar Biscet from prison after more than eight years behind bars, often in solitary confinement. "We were delirious with joy when we got the call from Oscar's wife," said Sidley Washington partner Andrew Strenio Jr. "It was a labor of love." Strenio credits Sidley associate Lauren Buckley and Hogan Lovells Washington partner Jeremy Zucker for much of the pro bono behind-the-scenes work they all did to help win Biscet's release. Biscet, a medical doctor who has been likened to South Africa's Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned for his nonviolent human rights work in Cuba. Supporters also said the Afro-Cuban doctor was the victim of Cuban racism. Biscet was one of 75 dissidents arrested in 2002. Most of those have been released in recent years, but Biscet's freedom was delayed in part because he wanted to remain in Cuba to continue his advocacy. "Some of the dissidents accepted exile as a condition of their release, but Oscar refuses to leave Cuba," said Strenio. "He is intent on continuing his work." Asked what the lawyers did to win Biscet's release, Strenio said it involved "quite delicate work" that he did not want to describe fully. But much of it was "back channel" communications aimed at making it clear to Cuba that Biscet's release was important to a wide range of government, civil and religious groups. "His eloquence and the force of his personality won him admirers around the world," said Strenio. Biscet has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 2007, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in absentia. Last year, Strenio said, feedback began to turn positive about Biscet's possible release, so when the call came from Biscet's wife about his March 11 release, it was not entirely a surprise. Strenio said Biscet has since spoken with the lawyers who helped him, thanking them profusely. "The chance to be of help to him was such an honor that we were thanking him," said Strenio, an antitrust expert and former Federal Trade Commission member. The 49-year-old Biscet is "doing remarkably well," given his long confinement, said Strenio, who hopes to meet Biscet some day. Carter Phillips, Sidley's D.C. managing director, said in a statement, "Sidley is deeply honored to have been part of this inspiring struggle to free Dr. Biscet, and we are grateful that our efforts on his behalf have succeeded. Dr. Biscet's release represents a victory for the rule of law and demonstrates the important role that pro bono lawyers can play even on matters beyond our nation's borders."
By JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ jcchavez@elNuevoHerald.com Oscar Elías Biscet, the most important member of the opposition in Cuba, said dissidents would be willing to negotiate a transitional government to implement democratic measures that would avoid a civil war. “If the regime were willing to have talks, we have demands,” Biscet told El Nuevo Herald from Havana. “We want Raúl and Fidel Castro to resign because they have drowned the country in misery, political assassinations and persecution. Let them assign other people to represent their interests and let us begin a transition toward freedoms for the Cuban people.” Biscet was released on March 11 after mediation by the Cuban Catholic Church culminated in the release of 115 political prisoners. Fifty other prisoners are still jailed and there are no plans for their release. All, except Biscet and 12 others, accepted exile in Spain. “The fact that a group is not willing to leave the country is a way to show the world that our fight is about love of our country and dignity for human beings,” he said. “It seems to me that this favors the Cuban people’s cause.” Biscet, a 49-year-old doctor, said that Cuban authorities are giving the world and the people in Cuba false indications of change — allowing some to be self-employed, opening the country to foreign capital and opening a dialogue with dignitaries who advocate for human rights, such as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Carter met with the Castro brothers and Ricardo Alarcón, president of the National Assembly of Popular Power, and other officials during his visit to Havana last week. He also visited Alan P. Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor serving a 15-year prison sentence in Havana. Gross was arrested for carrying transmission equipment for independent groups. In his meeting with dissidents and bloggers, Carter was briefed on the economic, political and social crisis in the island, as well as on the corrupt, repressive and exclusionist nature of the regime. “We made it clear to Carter that a dictatorship rules Cuba and that no sovereignty exists,” Biscet said. “We were able to communicate some things, a brief synthesis of our thoughts.” About the Cuban economic situation Biscet said that any adjustment must be accompanied by policies that would guarantee, among other aspects, people’s fundamental rights, the legalization of independent groups and organizations within the civil society, religious freedoms and the release of all prisoners of conscience. “We want comprehensive changes and a market system associated to freedoms and things that lead to a harmonious and happy life in our nation,” he said. Biscet, founder of the Lawton Foundation for Democracy and Human Rights, accused the Cuban government of permitting acts of corruption and trumping up charges to get the members of civil society and their leaders out of the way. “It benefits the government to have corrupt people because with such characteristics they will not fight against them, and that is why they are allowed to exist,” he said. “And when they feel threatened that a new leader could emerge within their party or among those who govern with them, they attribute acts of corruption to them so they would not have any followers.” Biscet said that as long as a totalitarian dictatorship exists in Cuba there will always be a risk of raids and massive detentions of independent journalists and opponents, as was the case of the Black Spring of 2003. Biscet was serving a 15-year sentence after he and 74 other dissidents were arrested. Biscet had been arrested many times since 1998. “Everything is possible here. They are willing to go to any extent to never lose power,” he said. “This is one of the reasons why they do not sign any international or human-rights agreements, particularly those addressing basic freedoms.” He said that despite the Cuban government’s extreme vigilance of the opposition movement, there is a social force — the younger generation — escaping from the regime. “The Cuban youth does not believe in the system, and the spirit they are developing is not afraid of the government’s pressure. The fear the Castros wish to impose is not going to stop the wishes of the youth of pursuing the general welfare, including the economic and psychological perspectives,” Biscet said. “The youths will create their own space to accomplish their objectives.” Biscet also mentioned the work of the independent reporters and bloggers on the Internet, which threatens to bring down the government’s information monopoly that keeps the population uninformed of the denunciations and criticism against the regime. “They are giving the world different perspectives and ideas,” Biscet said. “And when these emerge everything else finds its place. This is very important for us because, associated to the state terrorist activities, the government wants to control all the information to continue deceiving the population.” In 2007, the Bush administration gave Biscet the Medal of Freedom in absentia in recognition of his opposition activities and his appeals to civil disobedience. Biscet said the U.S. government’s financial support is essential to promote democracy in Cuba. Recently Sen. John Kerry, who presides over the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, announced his opposition to $20 million included in the 2012 budget to promote democracy in Cuba. “Kerry must know that resources are needed for this type of fight and he knows very well that Cubans in the island do not have those resources,” Biscet said. “If we are able to resist it’s because of our high morale not because we have resources. Here we have to depend on people’s mercy to survive.”