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Cuba tries doctors for mental hospital mass deaths

posted 17 Jan 2011, 12:52 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 17 Jan 2011, 12:54 ]

Family members make their way to court hearing as the anxiously await answers in case of 26 deaths in mental hospital in which doctors are facing charges.

HAVANA, CUBA (JANUARY 17, 2011) REUTERS - Cuba opened a trial on Monday (January 17) against the authorities of a psychiatric hospital where 26 patients died of cold a year ago in a scandal that revealed cracks in the tropical island's famous free health system.

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

Relatives of the accused, including the hospital director and other doctors, attended a spoken presentation in a Havana court along with relatives of the victims.

The leading government newspaper, Granma, on Monday said the government had created an investigative commission to bring those responsible to trail adding that the results would be made public at the close of the judicial process.

Family members of those who died at the psychiatric hospital, like Mercedes Alvarez Miranda, who lost her brother, Fidel Alvarez Miranda, presented to the courthouse hoping for justice and answers.

"We're anxiously waiting here to find out and for justice to be done. We'll see what happens. We're gonna wait here, his niece, I'm his sister, and the mourners; we'll see. We have faith that everything will work out," said Alvarez Miranda.

With a very high ratio of doctors to patients and health indicators to rival the wealthy West, Cuba is proud of the universal free healthcare Fidel Castro's communist government established after a 1959 revolution.

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

The deaths during a cold snap were first brought to light by a human rights group and later confirmed by the government.

"We're hoping justice will be done and that everything works out like it should," added the same victim's niece, Yamilka Balboa Alvarez.

The non-governmental Cuban Human Rights Commission said the hospital lacked glass in the windows, doors and blankets when temperatures dropped to 3.6 Celsius (38 degrees Fahrenheit) on the usually balmy Caribbean island last January.

"[The accused in this case] are all subordinates that we think have very little responsibility in this. Because they couldn't decide to put windows to protect the ill, or [make sure] that the hospital was adequately supplied," said the spokesperson for the Cuban Human Rights Commission, Elizardo Sanchez.

The defendants themselves were not present at the first hearing, but family members of director Wilfredo Castillo and other hospital authorities turned up at the courthouse, in a peaceful residential neighbourhood of central Havana.

It was not immediately clear what the defendants had been accused of and the rights commission said the move against the hospital authorities did not go far enough up the chain of command.

"The [Human Rights] Commission understands that the central government, by that, the heads of state, the highest levels of the regime, are responsible politically and administratively," added Sanchez.

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