A former high-ranking judge in Cuba has joined an antigovernment activist in revealing information from secret government documents that show the government is holding thousands of inmates on dubious charges and has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
The revelations by Edel González Jiménez, who spent more than 15 years on the bench and once supervised 65 other judges, are believed to be the first public challenge to the Cuban government by a top member of the judiciary.
“The repression that I am seeing against part of my people is not what I want for my people,” he said during a news conference on Monday in Madrid, where he was joined by members of an organization that works on behalf of political prisoners in Cuba and by members of the European Parliament. “I have a lot of fear about the future. Every day Cubans face more fear. I don’t want blood on the streets of Cuba, I don’t want these imprisonments.”
Choking back tears, Mr. González told the audience that his wife had advised him not to speak out, but that he gone against her wishes because he felt it was his duty to challenge the government.
Mr. González said that Cuba’s judiciary was often controlled by state security forces that can manufacture cases against political opponents — a statement that critics will readily agree with, but that is surprising coming from a man who insisted that he remains a faithful member of the Communist Party of Cuba and a believer in Fidel Castro’s project.
His avowed support of the government makes his words significantly troubling for a country that frequently paints dissidents as mercenaries on Washington’s payroll.
“I am not looking for problems,” Mr. González, who left Cuba in 2018 and now lives in Peru, said in an earlier interview. “But I decided: Enough with cowardice.”
Mr. González was joined at the news conference by Javier Larrondo, a longtime anti-Castro activist who runs an organization called Prisoners Defenders in Madrid, in publicly announcing his call for the Cuban government to respect civil rights.
“This is an important blow to the regime,” Mr. Larrondo said.
Documents reviewed by The New York Times showed that approximately 92 percent of those accused in the more than 32,000 cases that go to trial in Cuba every year are found guilty. Nearly 4,000 people every year are accused of being “antisocial” or “dangerous,” terms the Cuban government uses to jail people who pose a risk to the status quo, without having a committed a crime.
Such measures are often used against young black men to stifle potential social uprisings, said Orlando Gutiérrez, an activist in Miami.
Those accused of being a threat are subjected to summary trials and have no right to a defense or to present evidence, Mr. González said. The records show that 99.5 percent of the people accused of this are found guilty.
Mr. Larrondo released Cuban court documents showing that dozens of men received sentences between two and four years in prison for offenses falling broadly under the category of “antisocial” — a phrase that can be applied to people who are unemployed, do not belonging to civic organizations associated with the state, behave disorderly and harass tourists, and associate with similarly “antisocial” people.
In case after case, the description of the crime is identical, suggesting that the police cut and pasted the language in the investigative report.
Arianna López Roque, 29, said that when her husband, Mitzael Díaz Paseiro, was sentenced to three and a half years for being “dangerous” in Mr. González’s judicial district, the court was “completely militarized.” He was not permitted to have a defense lawyer and only members of his immediate family were allowed to attend.
“The court in Cuba is manipulated by the dictatorship,” she said. “You don’t have the opportunity to defend yourself in any manner against what they say.”
Mr. González said that in ordinary criminal cases, judges are independent and free of government influence. But he said that cases against dissidents like Mr. Díaz are orchestrated by the state security apparatus, because judges, fearful of losing their jobs, go along with evidence that is often flagrantly concocted, he said.
The records show that Cuba’s prison system holds more than 90,000 prisoners. The Cuban government has only publicly released the figure once, in 2012, when it claimed that 57,000 people were jailed.
“What is important is what is behind those numbers,” Mr. González said. “People are in prison for stealing flour, because they are pizza makers and the government has set up a system where the only way to get flour is by buying in the black market from someone who stole it from the state.”
Still, Mr. González insisted on Monday that there was time for Cuba to resolve its problems internally, and he warned against any outside interference. “We will not allow anybody to impose anything, that should be clear to all countries. Cubans can manage this alone without any kind of interference,” he said.
Mr. González also cautioned against coming to the conclusion that the high number of prisoners in Cuba was proof of a failed society and judiciary. Other countries, he said, had fewer prisoners, but that reflected a high level of “impunity” and failure to prosecute common and violent crime, while Cuba instead “maintains social order.”
Officials at the Cuban Embassy in Washington and the Cuban judiciary did not respond to requests for comment, as is customary.
Eloy Viera Cañive, an independent legal analyst in Cuba, said the Communist Party and Ministry of Interior always have the last word in Cuba’s judiciary.
“This is a police state, and the Ministry of Interior has a lot of influence, even on judges,” Mr. Viera said. “True independence is impossible.”
Mr. González had a humble upbringing in Caibarién, a coastal town in central Cuba, where his mother was a restaurant cook and his father managed a government transportation warehouse.
In 1973, his uncles were among 11 fishermen on state-owned vessels attacked at sea by anti-Castro fighters from abroad, who were trying to force the men to defect. The attackers set fire to the boats, killed one man, and cut the throat of one of his uncles, who survived, even after being left adrift to die. The episode marked the family, turning them against those who tried to topple the Cuban government.
“We have always had a vocation of supporting the system,” he said.
After Fidel Castro fell ill in 2006, his brother Raúl Castro assumed the presidency. In a seismic shift for a country where hundreds of people have served long prison sentences for speaking out against the Communist Party, he organized community town halls and let it be known that Cubans were welcome to voice their opinions about vexing food shortages and other disappointments.
Although Raúl Castro stepped down from the presidency in 2018, he retained a great measure of control by remaining the head of Cuba’s Communist Party. That is, in part, why Mr. González is convinced that his announcement might actually be perceived as the kind of constructive criticism Raúl Castro encouraged.
Mario Félix Lleonart, a Baptist minister from the central province of Villa Clara who left Cuba as a political refugee in 2016, laughed out loud at the thought that Mr. González could return to his old job.
The two met 20 years ago when the minister’s wife was a secretary at the civil courthouse, and Mr. González was assigned to find out more about her political activities. Mr. González was surprisingly respectful and professional, the minister recalled.
“Edel was a brilliant student of law and the government kept promoting him,” he said. “But as he continued rising, his curiosity rose too. He realized his country was not in order.”
Last year, Mr. González’s former boss, Rubén Remigio Ferro, president of the Cuban Supreme Court, told the state newspaper, Granma that although the administration of justice on the island is improving, “deficiencies” still exist, such as trial delays, misguided decisions and a lack of professionalism.
President Miguel Díaz-Canel told judges while inaugurating the new judicial calendar last week that the courts must “remain a system that is distinguished first and foremost by its ethics, its transparency and the honest behavior of its members.”
Mr. González is betting that public criticism from someone who believes in the system the Castros built will trigger dialogue between longtime enemies of the Cuban government and loyal insiders who wish to see improvements in areas such as human rights.
He also hopes, eventually, to return to the island, where his 14-year-old daughter lives, to reclaim his job in Villa Clara.
“My wife says I’m too much of a dreamer,” Mr. González said.
Raphael Minder contributed reporting.