By FARRAH JOHNSON
Tribune Staff Reporter
A CUBAN couple seeking political asylum in The Bahamas after fleeing their home country for fear of persecution claim immigration officials have discriminated against them because of their nationality.
The two also allege that they are being forced to endure unsanitary and inhumane conditions while being detained at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre.
The government on the other hand, contends the pair do not qualify for refugee status and are seeking for their court case to be dismissed so they can be deported back to Cuba.
Attorneys for Maikel Rodriguez Jiménez and his girlfriend Nathalie Palacios Morffis said they escaped from Cuba because of political persecution and victimisation, prompted by their “civic and political activities” which oppose the current Cuban government.
The activists fled the country in a vessel with the purpose of reaching Miami, Florida or any other jurisdiction that would grant them political asylum. They have both applied to The Bahamas government for refugee and political asylum status. However, after their vessel was apprehended in Bahamian waters, they were arrested and detained at the Carmichael Road Detention Centre where they have been since September 7.
Senior Justice Bernard Turner recently granted the attorneys representing the couple leave to issue a writ of habeas corpus against the government, calling on officials to explain why the couple was being detained and to prove why they should not be released immediately.
At that hearing yesterday, the Crown submitted two returns signed by the officer in charge of the CRDC, who said it was determined that Jimenez and Morffis were not migrants in need of protection in accordance with the UNHCR’s (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) 1951 Convention and 1957 protocol, after they were interviewed by the Refugee Administration Unit of the Immigration Department.
In an affidavit filed in support of the couple’s habeas corpus applications, one of their attorneys, Philisea Bethel, noted the two were denied the opportunity to meet with her until five days after she had sent an email request to the relevant authorities.
She said when she was finally allowed to meet with Jiménez and Morffis, they were taken to a “makeshift” meeting room with thin walls and a door that was “see-through” in the middle.
Ms Bethel said she spoke to the couple through a Spanish interpreter and was asked to document their story for the court to prevent them from being “expelled, repatriated or deported back to Cuba.”
“Mr Jiménez described protests that he and Ms Morffis were both involved in while in Cuba between 2020 and 2021 as part of the Christian Democratic Party of Cuba,” Ms Bethel said. “I was told by both Mr Jiménez and Ms Morffis that it was thereafter difficult for them to find work and to make a living to survive during the last two years as a result.
“In 2020, Mr Jiménez’s fishing boat was seized by officials of the Cuban government following the said political protests... Mr Jiménez stated it was hard surviving day-to-day after his boat was seized. (He said) after his boat was seized, he wired his mouth shut and refused to eat and drink until his boat was returned sometime later in 2020. Mr Jiménez then lifted his shirt and proceeded to show me marked wounds and scars about his body that he got during protests opposing the current Cuban regime.”
Ms Bethel said Morffis also told her that her life in Cuba was “extremely hard”. She said the woman took part in the protests against the Cuban government in July along with Jiménez and was forced to go into hiding to avoid being detained and incarcerated by Cuban police. Morffis’ family was also harassed and threatened with imprisonment for not disclosing her whereabouts, the court documents state.
“Both Ms Morffis and Mr Jiménez detailed the discriminatory treatment of Cubans by immigration officers,” Ms Bethel continued. “On September 7, they were transported to and arrived at an unknown dock where they were required to take COVID tests which came back negative. Other detainees—non-Cuban nationals—were transported to CRDC almost immediately upon arrival.
“..Ms Morffis also stated that upon her arrival, she was kept in a quarantine room by herself for about nine days despite having two negative COVID tests. Ms Morffis described the poor condition of the room and how the mattress in the isolation room had no sheets as she had to use the thin covering on the mattress as a blanket. She also stated that while in the isolation room she was given six bottles of water during the nine-day period. She drank two bottles and used the remaining four bottles to wash herself periodically. The bathroom in the isolation room had no running water.”
Ms Bethel said the couple told her that Cuban detainees at the CRDC were treated “differently” from other detainees. She said she was told Cubans were “treated poorly” by immigration officers and were not allowed to make phone calls. She also said the couple claimed that at CRDC they had to wear the same soiled clothing for approximately 21 days. Ms Morffis stated she was allowed to shower, however, she remained in soiled clothing for approximately six days from the date of arrival. Mr Jiménez further stated he had no shoes and was barefooted for 21 days after arrival,” she said.
Ms Bethel said the few items of clothing the couple have were donated by other inmates who felt sorry for them not having anything to wear. She said when they complained about unsanitary conditions or requested to make calls, they were either shouted at, told to ‘shut up’ or were ignored”.
Jiménez also broke a bone in his foot after slipping on a wet bathroom floor, but was not allowed to see a doctor until three days later. Although he was given a cast at Princess Margaret Hospital, when he returned to the CRDC it fell apart and he “was never given a replacement cast or proper bandaging around his foot,” she said.
“...To make matters worse, Mr Jiménez also has glaucoma and described an episode he suffered at CDC,” Ms Bethel continued. “On one occasion he experienced excruciating pain while at CDC and thereafter informed immigration officers, but was not given medical attention/medication until some six days later… I was further told by Mr Jiménez that he and Ms Morffis were on a deportation list with seven other to be deported by November 25, and although they were not told they were going to be deported, he was informed by other detainees that’s what usually happens when you are ‘on the list.’”
After filing the affidavit in support of the couple’s release, their lead counsel Fred Smith, QC, asked the judge for more time to review and respond to the government’s return claims.
His request was acceded to and the matter was subsequently adjourned to December 16.