The Briton who languished in a Cuban jail after being accused of spying
Stephen Purvis has returned to Britain after spending 16 months in a
Cuban jail on false spying and fraud charges. He speaks to Colin Freeman
about the ordeal.
By Colin Freeman9:00PM BST 06 Jul 2013
WHEN the £400 million Bellomonte Golf and Country Club eventually opens
for business, its pristine fairways will mark an elegantly-landscaped
route for Cuba to move into the 21st century. In a country that once
banned golf as a “bourgeois sport”, its five-star hotel, spa and luxury
villa complex is the clearest sign that the Communist outpost is finally
embracing the long-taboo ethos of capitalism.
One man who is unlikely to attend any future ribbon-cutting ceremony,
though, is Stephen Purvis, the Wimbledon-born architect whose firm,
Coral Capital, was behind the Bellomonte development. Resident with his
family in Cuba for ten years, he was the ideal person to mastermind the
flagship project of its tourist economy, having previously turned
Havana’s crumbling, colonial-era Saratoga Hotel into a chic hang-out
favoured by the likes of Beyonce and Naomi Campbell.
Last week, though, he was recovering back in London, after losing 16
months of his life – and 50lbs in weight – to a stint in the rather less
comfortable accommodation of Cuba’s prison system.
In an ordeal that could have been torn from the pages of a Graham Greene
novel, Mr Purvis was falsely accused first of being a spy, and then of
obscure breaches of finance laws, while never being told details of the
allegations against him. He fled the island after a court released him a
fortnight ago, following a trial conducted entirely in secret.
Meanwhile, Coral’s offices in Cuba have been shut down, and the country
club project in which he has invested millions of pounds and five years
of his life handed to a Chinese firm.
Yet he counts himself lucky. During his time in Havana’s notorious Villa
Marista spy interrogation centre, he feared he might never see the
outside world again, or his wife Rachel and four children.
“It was grim, absolutely grim,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. “Being
accused of espionage is bad enough anywhere, let alone somewhere like
Cuba. You get this overpowering sense of being forgotten by the world,
and that you are about to receive a huge prison sentence for nothing at
Mr Purvis, 52, spoke out last week to warn other British entrepreneurs
of the risks in Cuba, which has courted foreign investors in recent
years to revamp its moribund command economy. They were risks, though,
that he himself thought he no longer had to worry about, given that his
own firm, financed by private European backers, was among the
best-established on the island. Since setting up there in 2000, it has
invested in everything from tourism through to factories and docks, and
even financed El Benny, a Cuban film about the country’s most famous
singer, Benny Moré.
Mr Purvis was also a pillar of Havana’s expatriate community, working as
vice-chair of Havana’s international school, where diplomats sent their
children, and producing “Havana Rakatan,” a Cuban dance show which has
toured London’s West End.
His connections, however, counted for nothing when in October 2011,
Cuban police arrested Coral’s British-Lebanese chief executive Amado
Fakhre, on charges of bribery and revealing state secrets. The move
appears to have been part of a wider sweep against dozens of foreign
businessmen, launched after Cuban intelligence – which still views
capitalism with suspicion – became convinced that the occasional bribes
which took place had become an epidemic.
While his diplomatic contacts urged Mr Purvis to leave, he decided to
stay behind and try to help, having been told by Cuban officials that
they had no interest in him personally. Then, five months later, as he
was about to take his children to school, state police arrested him.
What followed was a first-hand insight into Cuba’s darker side – and
confirmation that for all its attempts at reform, its security services
remain as repressive as ever.
“At first I was taken to a run-down villa in the middle of nowhere,
where I was interrogated for two hours every morning, afternoon and
night,” said Mr Purvis. “They accused me of passing information to a
foreign state, but never said who, where or how. At the end of each day
they would make me write up a summary of events, even though they kept
their own notes too. Then, after five days, they put me in ‘pre-emptive
detention’ in Villa Marista.”
A Catholic boys’ school in pre-revolution days, Villa Marista is used
for interrogations of political prisoners. Officials boast that
eventually everyone “sings” after a stay there.
While Mr Purvis did not experience torture, he says the jail was
designed to send inmates mad. He was kept with three other prisoners in
a filthy 8ft by 8ft cell, with the lights on round-the-clock, and
exercise limited to 15 minutes a week. Each prisoner was also assigned a
personal interrogator who would even cut their toenails, fingernails and
hair for them.
“They decide absolutely everything about your life, even personal
grooming. The idea is to separate you from your personal identity, so
you lose a sense of who you are. Several inmates who passed through my
cell during my time went cuckoo, and there was an attempted suicide
about once a month. You’d be trying to sleep at night and suddenly
there’d be this terrible wail from some other cell.”
Worse still was learning just ten days into his detention that his wife
had been hospitalised due to the stress. Three weeks later, she and the
children were flown back to Britain for their own safety, leaving him
reliant on prison visits from local friends and British embassy staff,
who were helpful but could do nothing to resolve his case. “It was a
nightmare, I knew my wife was ill and I was powerless to look after
either her or the children.”
Eight months later, he learned that the spying charge – based on a
“denunciation” by an anonymous informant – was being dropped. But the
charge was then simply switched to “economic crime”, and he was switched
to the special foreigners unit at Cuba’s La Condesa prison. A collection
of dusty huts surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, it was
comfortable compared to Villa Marista, even though his new companions
included multiple murderers, Jamaican Yardies and drug barons. Luckily,
he says, the guards kept a very close watch.
Mr Purvis passed the time by writing a new script for his dance show,
and drawing up business plans for inmates who wanted to go into
legitimate enterprises after their release. A keen amateur artist, he
also found himself in demand to paint portraits of prisoners’ wives and
girlfriends. “They would show me a photo of someone who often looked
like a warthog, and ask me to make her look more like Beyonce,” he said.
“And perhaps a bit fruitier.”
It was not until three weeks before his trial last month that his Cuban
lawyer finally got the charge sheet against him – an 8,000-page document
that even then, Mr Purvis was not allowed to see. He was convicted,
though, only of the minor charge of conducting illegal foreign currency
transactions. “That is something that every foreign business does in
Cuba, and the central bank had authorised all our transactions for 12
years. Then all of a sudden they were saying they weren’t authorised,
and that we didn’t have specific permission. It was a very arbitrary
application of the law.”
In the end, Mr Purvis received a two-and-a-half-year “non-custodial
sentence” – the closest thing to an apology from the court, according to
his Cuban lawyer. He was released on June 17, two days before Mr Fakhre.
Since leaving Cuba he has been staying with at his mother Anne’s house
in London, reunited with his wife Rachel and children Joseph, 18, Max,
17, Poppy, 15 and Anna Rose 13.
“I’m overjoyed to have Stephen back,” said Mrs Purvis, 49. “Although it
had been so long that when I first heard the news I partly just felt numb.”
Coral is now contemplating another tussle with the Cuban courts – this
time a lawsuit to regain £10.6 million in confiscated company assets.
But exactly why the Cuban authorities moved against them remains a mystery.
One possibility is that the denunciation came from a business rival.
Another, says Mr Purvis, is that the firm was simply the victim of an
over-zealous anti-corruption trawl by Cuba’s intelligence service, “who
know nothing about business, so they see crime everywhere”.
But he also believes a wider political game may be at work. Most of the
arrested businessmen have been Westerners. But competitors from the
likes of China and Venezuela have been left alone, suggesting a plan may
be afoot to clear Cuba’s markets for countries Havana feels more
ideologically comfortable with.
“It’s hard to be sure because everyone is too scared to talk about this
kind of thing when they’re on the island,” Mr Purvis said. “The sad
thing is, I’ll probably never be able to go back to Cuba now, even
though I love the place. They just don’t understand business yet, and in
the long-term that’s going to be bad for them.”
Source: “The Briton who languished in a Cuban jail after being accused
of spying – Telegraph” –