Cuba seeks long jail terms for mental asylum deaths

HAVANA Mon Jan 24, 2011 10:43am EST

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HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba is seeking prison terms of up to 14 years for administrators and staff of a mental health hospital where 26 patients died of cold last year in a scandal that showed lapses in the tropical island's lauded health system.

The Havana Psychiatric Hospital failed to provide warm clothes, cover open windows or adequately staff wards during a cold snap despite having resources to do so, prosecutors alleged at a trial last week, Cuba's leading government newspaper Granma reported on Monday.

Sentencing is expected within the next few days. The defendants, including the hospital director, doctors and other staff, are accused of misuse of resources and of "abandoning minors, ill and disabled people."

"Since these events took place, and without holding back in our efforts, we started a long and painful search for the truth, which touched the deepest feelings of every Cuban because it took place in the heart of a sector which is the pride of Cuba," Granma said.

The deaths, reported to have occurred during a week in January when temperatures dropped to 38 degrees Fahrenheit (3.6 Celsius) on the usually balmy Caribbean island, were first brought to light by a human rights group and later confirmed by the government.

The Communist government founded by Fidel Castro after a 1959 revolution established a system of universal free healthcare, with a very high ratio of doctors to patients. This has achieved health indicators to rival the wealthy West.

But an economic crisis that forced Cuba to stop paying some foreign debts and restructure other loans has exacerbated shortages of medical supplies in the Cuban health system.

Cuba's government, now headed by Fidel's brother, Raul Castro, points to a decades-long U.S. trade embargo as a major factor in the country's economic problems.

The trial comes at a time when Cuba has taken modest steps to open the economy to small private enterprise and is laying off about 500,000 public workers, including some employees of the Health Ministry, in a bid to improve state services, reduce subsidies and raise its tax take.

The nongovernmental Cuban Human Rights Commission has said tougher charges, including manslaughter, should have been brought against the accused in the mental hospital case. The group also said the prosecution against the hospital authorities did not go far enough up the chain of command.

"This reaffirms our conviction this has been a judicial farce. All the defendants are really just scapegoats, the responsibility lies with senior government officials," said the spokesman of the rights group, Elizardo Sanchez, who also said he had evidence up to 40 people died at the hospital.

Former Health Minister Jose Ramon Balaguer, who fought alongside the Castro brothers to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, left the cabinet post last year but remains a senior Communist Party member.

(Reporting by Esteban Israel; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Jackie Frank)

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