The Cuban government used the coronavirus pandemic throughout 2020 as a pretext to increase arbitrary arrests, illegal home searches and sham trials, the State Department said Tuesday in a new report on the country’s human rights practices.

The State Department report found that Cuban authorities had charged individuals with “propagating an epidemic” for allegedly violating COVID-19 restrictions, and that the accused were tried and sentenced without legal representation or the ability to defend themselves.

The report cited a non-governmental organization that documented at least 34 cases in which Cuba invoked COVID-19 violations to arrest government critics. In other cases, Cuba’s Ministry of Justice said that “extraordinary circumstances” warranted expedited trials that, before the pandemic, were reserved for cases involving crimes against state security.

“The government broadened arbitrary arrest powers under the pretext of controlling the COVID-19 pandemic,” the State Department report said.

“On the basis of the COVID-19 pandemic public health emergency, most trials were converted to summary trials, with many defendants accused of poorly defined claims of ‘propagating an epidemic’ or a range of crimes referred to as ‘illicit economic activity,’ such as hoarding scarce goods,” the report said.

The pandemic was also used as a pretext for door-to-door COVID-19 checks that turned into “illegal home searches,” and for crackdowns on religious worship, the report added.

Similar Story In Venezuela

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro used the pandemic crisis to declare a “state of alarm” and grant himself the power to “restrict rights otherwise provided for in the constitution,” according to the State Department report.

The United States does not recognize Maduro’s rule and has led a charge since early 2019 to have the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, recognized as Venezuela’s interim president.

In order for individuals to gain access to COVID-19 testing and other services, Maduro required them to obtain an identification card. Applicants for the card needed to provide proof of political affiliation — a tool of “social control,” the State Department said.

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“The illegitimate Maduro regime threatened, harassed, and arrested journalists, opposition politicians, and health-care workers for speaking out regarding COVID-19 and the response to the pandemic,” the report said.

The State Department releases reports on the human rights practices of every country each year.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the pandemic has exacerbated attacks on democratic institutions around the world.

“All of these alarming trend lines are being worsened by COVID-19, which autocratic governments have used as a pretext to target their critics and further repress human rights,” Blinken said.