Cuban lawmakers pass new penal code critiqued by rights, media groups

FILE PHOTO: A view of the Capitol during an overnight curfew amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Havana, Cuba, September 1, 2020. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini/Pool

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban lawmakers on Sunday approved a new penal code for the country that is being critiqued by some rights groups who say its clause on foreign funding may be used to unjustly stifle dissent and independent journalism in the wake of widespread anti-government protests last July.

The government said the new code, which replaces a more than 30-year old penal law drafted under former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, is in line with the country's new constitution approved by referendum in 2019, as well as international treaties.

The president of Cuba's Popular Supreme Court, Ruben Remigio Ferro, said the code was compatible "with international legal instruments on criminal matters, always respecting human rights," according to a report in state-run newspaper Granma.

The legislation, which is all-encompassing, stiffens penalties for crimes and violence against women, discrimination, and environmental infractions.

But some international media groups have warned that one key amendment could have a chilling effect on journalists.

The code creates new crimes, categorized as "other acts against the security of the State," aimed at confronting "the financing of counterrevolutionary, subversive or any other illegal activity...on behalf of a government, international organizations, non-governmental or others."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said that clause would have a "catastrophic effect" on independent journalism in Cuba, by making foreign funding illegal.

The Cuban government has alleged that protests last July, widely considered to be the largest since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, were financed and fomented by the United States - a crime that could now face stiffer penalties.

The United States has denied involvement in the July 11 protests.

The law also sets the age of criminal responsibility at 16, though for those under 18 it limits jail time to "serious crimes due to their social or economic connotation, or [those] that threaten the security of the State."

"Do not forget this segment of the population includes those [recruited by the enemy] to promote actions of subversion against the country's political order," Remigio Ferro said during the Sunday discussion of the new code, according to Granma.

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, in a statement on May 12, noted allegations that Cuba had jailed children under 16 following the July 11 protests.

The Cuban government has said claims of ill-treatment or torture of minors by public officials were untrue.

The code is set to become law 90 days after its forthcoming publication in Cuba's official gazette.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood)

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