Usually I take no notice of stories regarding alleged prisoners of conscience in Cuba, they all say more or less the same thing, and I've always found Amnesty's demand for the immediate release of all political prisoners (regardless of who their backers are or what the conditions in the country in question are) painfully naïve and reeking of petty-bourgeois liberal sentiment. That's fine if that's the kind of organisation they wish to be, and they have never suggested otherwise, but there's little reason I should take particular interest in their views on Cuba's treatment of political dissidents under state of siege.
As a result I missed most of the media coverage surrounding the death of Zapata so I was forced to conduct some fresh research. At first my assumption was that, like many others Amnesty have designated 'prisoners of conscience', he was a terrorist or that he had been receiving money from the US. I was surprised, it was nothing so noble. Orlando Zapata Tamayo was arrested in March 2003 at around the same time as the now infamous (but greatly exaggerated) crackdown on counter-revolutionary activities, but he was not one of those arrested in connection with such activities, as the UN list (whose objectivity is at best questionable, but that won't be addressed here) drawn up in its aftermath can verify.
While Zapata turning out to be simply a common criminal and not a great subversive was surprising, what I found positively shocking (perhaps you could call me naïve) was that the level of bias in the initial AI report when he was classified as a prisoner of conscience (retroactively, nearly a year after his most recent arrest), and in all reports since, goes far beyond simple ideological one-sidedness and dives head first into the realm of intentional misrepresentation.
How can AI justify not even mentioning in passing his previous serious criminal convictions and the fact that he has served time in prison previously for assault (more than once, including attacking a man with machete), fraud and illegal possession of a weapon?
In this light the claims made by the Cuban authorities that Zapata associated himself with political dissidents following his detention in order to win the improved conditions associated with political prisoners must at least be taken seriously. In Cuba, political prisoners are not forced to wear the same uniforms as common criminals, a fact the British Government could take note of.
What seems evident, without having to take either side on their word, is that Zapata joined the Movement for an Republican Alternative after a long history of violent crime (whatever his motivations). Why AI have deemed it appropriate to strike any reference to his criminality from their reports is certainly a valid question.
Another curiosity is that, while recent AI reports have made a big deal of the fact that Cuban courts have subsequently drastically increased his original sentence (which was three years for public disorder), none have mentioned the reason for these additional sentences (other than an ambiguous yet harmless enough sounding 'resistance in prison'). It was actually for assault. Even if AI contest this accusation, why don't they mention it? How can they contest it without mentioning it? The language is almost as though Kate Allen and Amnesty International condone Mr Zapata's actions.
Now, I'm not going to accuse Amnesty of a pro-western bias, or an anti-communist bias or anything like that. They're treatment of western countries is no different and they haven't been slow to condemn the abuses of the United States in particular. Instead I'm going to accuse them of bias in favour of finding conspiracy and persecution even where it doesn't exist – of being biased against all governments.
Now, I understand this mentality; I have many friends in Amnesty, all with good intentions, all good people. I have cooperated with them in the past on issues of mutual interest. But by damn if they wouldn't assume the guilt of the government and the innocence of the alleged prisoner of conscience. It's their distrust of government that often makes them good activists, but it also makes it institutionally impossible for Amnesty to make balanced and unbiased judgements on such issues.
My advice to comrades in Amnesty is this: all future reports should set out both the case of the government and the case of the prisoner, complete with whatever commentary they deem appropriate. Amnesty are of course free to campaign on the behalf of any prisoner they see fit (well, not in Cuba...), but they owe it to their activists to provide them with all the facts, not just the ones that will move them to righteous anger.