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Pastor Acquitted, but Convicted on New Charge
December 22 (Compass Direct News) – A court in Havana has found the Rev. Carlos Lamelas not guilty of “trafficking in human beings” but convicted him on previously unannounced charges of falsification of documents.
Judges imposed a fine of 1,000 Cuban pesos (US$45) on the evangelical pastor and former national president of the Church of God in Cuba for the new charges.
The Seventh Penal Court of the Provincial Peoples Tribunal evidently reached its verdict on December 13, although the four presiding judges did not inform Lamelas of their decision. Defense lawyer Pavel Quintano secured a photocopy of the unpublished decision and informed Lamelas by phone of the findings of the court.
“Even though this (sentence) is favorable, we are not satisfied,” Lamelas said. The pastor has had no opportunity to respond officially to the new charges, which he said are a pretext for authorities to retain possession of confiscated computers, files and office equipment.
“If a crime of falsification truly had been committed, that would make me an accomplice to ‘trafficking in humans,’ and I would not have been acquitted.” he said. “How can it be that I am innocent of the original crime, and nevertheless guilty of the one they later invented?”
The new accusations involve an application filed for permission to leave Cuba by one Lázaro Leonardo Laza – the court document does not specify that this was the applicant’s real name.
The alleged traveler was said to have requested an exit visa to leave the country to attend a church conference in Guatemala. The court claimed that his real intention was to continue on through Mexico to the United States.
The tribunal claimed that Lamelas signed a letter certifying that Laza was an accredited worker of the Church of God “without making some kind of verification.”
On the advice of his defense counsel, Lamelas plans to appeal the court decision.
False Witness
A co-defendant in the trafficking case, evangelical pastor Joel Rojas of Holguín, was convicted of trying to help Laza flee the country and was sentenced to seven years in prison, according to the court document.
A guilty verdict on the charge of “human trafficking” – that is, helping Cubans to flee the repressive regime – could have resulted in a prison term of up to nine years for Lamelas, who is married with two daughters. In messages to friends outside Cuba, he expressed relief over his acquittal and thanked them for their support.
Jailed on February 20, the evangelical pastor spent more than four months in the Villa Marita Detention Center without charge until his unexpected release on June 26.
During his incarceration, authorities failed to present any evidence to support their accusations that Lamelas had received money to arrange for fellow Cubans to flee the country for the United States. Upon his release, they informed family members that “a change in procedure” had prompted them to grant the pastor “provisional liberty.”
Lamelas was summoned to appear before the Provincial Peoples Tribunal on December 4. He told friends that some “curious” events took place at the trial.
“The lawyer for the other defendant approached my wife and told her that I did not even have to be there, that no evidence whatsoever existed to incriminate me.”
The state prosecutor appointed to argue the case against Lamelas – and who sought the nine-year prison term – suddenly fell ill and could not appear at trial. The substitute prosecutor proceeded to recommend that all charges against Lamelas be dropped.
“While we were still in the court room, one of the witnesses came up to my wife to ask her forgiveness for having testified against me earlier, which led to my arrest,” Lamelas said. “My wife accepted his apology.”
The witness then explained to Uramis Lamelas that state security officers had pressured him to testify against her husband. He later retracted his incriminating statement.
Lamelas was active in the house church movement on the Isle of Youth before moving to Havana in 2004 to assume presidency of the national board of the Church of God, based in Anderson, Indiana.
Sources in Cuba believe government officials have targeted Lamelas for harassment because they consider him a religious rights activist.