Reporters Without Borders has protested at the sentencing of journalist and human rights activist Carlos Brizuela Yera to three years in prison.
"One year after the arrests of 75 dissidents, the sentence against Carlos Brizuela Yera and nine other human rights campaigners, reminds us that that the Cuban government has quite simply criminalised the act of thinking differently," said Robert Ménard, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders. "We demand the immediate release of this journalist," he added.
The international press freedom organisation said it was also "dismayed" that a second journalist tried with Yera had said at the hearing that he was an undercover agent. "These Stalinist methods are highly manipulative, this sort of revelation being solely designed to spread paranoia among dissidents, whose growing numbers are alarming the regime," Ménard said.
He also expressed his concern on hearing that the well-known journalist and poet Raúl Rivero was suffering from pneumonia in prison, which he said was "revealing of the poor prison conditions for journalists and dissidents in Cuba." "It is all the more worrying since we know that many of them are living in worse conditions even than Rivero’s," the organisation added.
Reporters Without Borders is also concerned about Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who was recently told he will be transferred from the hospital in which he is now being treated, despite being in a bad state of health.
Trial at Ciego de Avila
Carlos Brizuela Yera, of the unrecognised independent press agency Colegio de Periodistas Independientes de Camagüey (Camagüey independent journalists’ co-operative) was sentenced on 26 April 2004 to three years in jail for causing "offence", "public disorder", "resistance to authority" and "disobedience". The sentence was handed down after a one-day hearing at the people’s provincial court in central Ciego de Avila.
Yera was tried with nine others for demonstrating on 4 March 2002 in front of the hospital to which Jesús Alvarez Castillo had just been admitted after being beaten up by police.
Among the others was Lester Téllez Castro, head at the time of the independent agency Agencia de Prensa Libre Avileña (APLA). However during the hearing he revealed that he was really a State Security agent codenamed "Ignacio". He nevertheless voiced his regret, apologising for having taking part in an "unnecessary and pointless cause" - referring to State Security.
One source that requested anonymity said that his mother, Hildelisa Castro Campo, who had managed to visit her son in prison several times since his arrest, did not believe in the statements he had made. It remains unclear why Tellez Castro was imprisoned and sentenced on 26 April to three and a half years in prison, despite being an undercover agent.
The eight other defendants were members of the local human rights organisation Fundación Cubana de Derechos Humanos (Cuban Foundation for Human Rights (FCDH), an organisation that is not recognised by the authorities.
According to Jesús Álvarez Castillo, quoted as a witness at the trial, they were given sentences ranging from three years under house arrest to seven years in prison. FCDH head Juan Carlos González Leyva, was sentenced to four years under house arrest. Believed to be the only blind political prisoner in the world, his case has prompted a strong reaction from the international community and he has the backing of the European Union.
Only two family members of each accused were allowed into the trial, where, according to one witness, government agents occupied most of the seats. Police had sealed off the area around the court.
On 4 March 2002, Jesús Álvarez Castillo, of the independent agency Cuba Press, was brutally beaten by police as he went to cover an FCDH meeting. Tipped off by Lester Téllez Castro, some dozen FCDH activists drove to the hospital in which the journalist was being treated and demonstrated in the entrance, chanting anti-government slogans.
Castillo told Reporters Without Borders in October 2002 that it was in fact a trap to arrest the group in the act of committing an offence and rebelling. The journalist said he was convinced that he had been deliberately beaten up to lure the activists to a public place where they could be filmed and arrested.
Sickness among jailed journalists
Blanca Reyes, wife of imprisoned journalist and poet Raúl Rivero, was told on 22 April 2004 that her husband was suffering from pneumonia. She called on the authorities to see that he received the necessary medical treatment.
She said she believed his illness was "the result of spending 11 months in a damp, small and dark cell" where he received poor food. "When they arrested Raúl at my home a year ago, he was perfectly well. Now his state of health is worrying," she stressed. Founder of the agency Cuba Press in 1995, he was awarded the Reporters Without Borders-Fondation de France press freedom prize in 1997 for his struggle for press freedom in his country. On this 3 May, he is set to receive UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Prize.
Miriam Leiva sent a message to Reporters Without Borders saying that she was concerned about her husband, the journalist and economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, after visiting him on 25 April. She said he had been told he would shortly be transferred, but with no further explanations. The journalist, who has cirrhosis of the liver and cancer, is currently in the Carlos J. Finlay de La Havane military hospital.
Leiva is concerned at this move when her husband’s state of health is so fragile. She also said that Chepe had been wrongly accused by warders of smuggling documents out of the hospital. She feared the accusation was a pretext to transfer him to a place where prison conditions would be harsher.
Rivero and Chepe are among the 75 dissidents arrested in March 2003 and given heavy prison sentences. Their work for foreign media was condemned as "acts against territorial independence and integrity". A total 30 journalists are in prison in Cuba, where only the official press is authorised. Other family members of journalists have also revealed similar harsh conditions under which they are being held.