Cuban Defectors Still Detained in Zimbabwe

By Julius Mokaya | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Nairobi ( - Out of the headlines, but still in custody: Authorities in Zimbabwe continue to hold two Cuban doctors who sought political asylum there after denouncing President Fidel Castro, despite the fact the United States has offered the two men refugee status.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has been advocating for the release of Leonel Cordova Rodriguez, 31, and Noris Pena Martinez, 25, has expressed concern over their safety.

A spokesman for the UNCHR's Zambia-based regional office said Zimbabwe had failed to honor its promise, made four weeks ago, to free the two.

The spokesman, Dominic Bartsch, said the Zimbabwe government had failed to explain why the two were still being detained in the capital, Harare.

"We cannot speculate on the reasons. We have indications that a number of other countries are willing to take them and we are still waiting for a response from Zimbabwe."

Earlier it was learned that Zimbabwe had struck a secret deal with the Cubans to repatriate the pair to Cuba. The UNHCR and U.S. officials warned that such a move would be a violation of Zimbabwe's own law as well as international conventions it is signatory to.

Zimbabwe immigration officials contacted Friday by telephone refused to comment. One, who sought anonymity, said: "The matter is not in our hands anymore. We only take instructions from elsewhere."

Officials at the Cuban embassy in Harare also declined to comment.

Last month, the United States agreed to grant refugee status to the two. Reports published in Zimbabwe said Cuba, a long-time ally of the southern African nation, objected to letting the doctors go to the U.S.

President Robert Mugabe, an avowed Marxist, is a close friend of Castro. The Zimbabwe leader has in recent months placed himself at odds with the international community over a campaign of violent intimidation by his supporters ahead of last month's election, and the seizure of white-owned farms.

Specifically he accused Britain and the U.S. of trying to influence the result of the election, which his ZANU-PF party narrowly won after an election that foreign observers described as neither free nor fair.

Rodriguez and Martinez were part of a 152-member Cuban medical mission sent to Zimbabwe to provide medical services under a Cuban government program of providing free health care to poor developing countries.

They accused Zimbabwe security officers of kidnapping them after their intention to defect became known, and trying to have them flown to Cuba, via South Africa, on an Air France plane destined for Havana.

The plane's pilot let them out of the aircraft after the doctors slipped a note to the flight crew, saying they were being kidnapped. The doctors were then returned to Zimbabwe for the U.N. agency to settle their status, but were instead detained by Zimbabwe security agents.

Cuban officials denounced the defectors, saying the doctors had betrayed the medical mission, but denied any involvement in the attempted abduction.

Last month the U.S. said Zimbabwe had broken the Geneva Convention and international law by holding the two against their wishes.

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials based in Nairobi, Kenya, last month flew to Harare where they interviewed the two before granting them refugee status in the U.S.