José Manuel Echandi wrote on 19 September 2007 to the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, urging her to act to speed up the release of Cuban journalist Normando Hernández González and his transfer to Costa Rica on humanitarian grounds. The request to the UN follows the refusal of the Cuban authorities to grant an exit visa to the seriously ill journalist, who has been in jail since 2003. In his letter, José Manuel Echandi points out that Cuba is a signatory to the UN protocol against torture, and could not therefore keep in jail a man whose state of health was incompatible with detention.
Hernández González began a hunger strike in March this year to protest against maltreatment he has suffered in Kilo 7 prison in Camagüey, central Cuba. He was admitted to the Carlos J. Finlay in Havana on 14 September suffering from tuberculosis. The same day the Costa Rican immigration service sent an entry visa for the journalist issued on humanitarian grounds to the Costa Rican consul in Havana. Two days later the consul sent an official request for Hernández González to leave the country to the Cuban foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque. No reply has been received to this request.
18.09.07 - Support for Costa Rica’s offer of humanitarian asylum to imprisoned journalist Normando Hernández
Reporters Without Borders today said it supports Costa Rica’s request for imprisoned journalist Normando Hernández González to be allowed to leave Cuba for humanitarian reasons. His health has deteriorated steadily since his arrest in the “Black Spring” crackdown of March 2003. Costa Rica’s consul in Havana, José Maria Penabad, formally submitted the request to Cuban foreign minister Felipe Pérez Roque on 16 September.
“Humanitarian concerns are clearly paramount as regards all prisoners of conscience, especially the 20 journalists held since March 2003 in very harsh conditions,” the press freedom organisation said. “We hail the Costa Rican government’s efforts to have Hernández moved to Costa Rica so that he can received appropriate treatment for his condition, which is now alarming.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “We strongly hope the Cuban foreign ministry will accede to this request from Costa Rica, which as already issued a visa for Hernández. We also hope other governments will support this initiative and will take similar initiatives on behalf of other imprisoned journalists.”
Costa Rica’s directorate of migration notified the consul on 14 September that it has issued a humanitarian visa for Hernández at the request of a parliamentarian, José Manuel Echandi, who has been trying for several months to have the seriously ill Hernández flow to Costa Rica. Two days later, Penabad formally asked the Cuban foreign minister to allow Hernández to take advantage of this offer of humanitarian asylum.
The director of the Colegio de Periodistas Independientes de Camagüey, an independent news agency, Hernández was arrested on 24 March 2003 along with 26 other journalists during the last major crackdown on Cuban dissidents. Arbitrarily accused of spying and threatening state security, he was given a 25-year prison sentence.
Held since 10 September 2006 in Camagüey’s Kilo 7 top-security prison and suffering from tuberculosis, Hernández went on hunger strike in March of this year in protest against mistreatment, denial of the right to visits and prison leave, poor food and other unacceptable conditions. He was transferred four days ago to Carlos J. Finlay hospital in Havana.
Two other independent journalists who have been held since March 2003 were taken to hospital the same day. They are Ricardo González Alfonso, Reporters Without Borders correspondent and editor of the magazine De Cuba, who is serving a 20-year sentence, and Julio César Gálvez Rodríguez, serving a 15-year sentence. They were taken to the military hospital in Havana’s Combinado del Este prison, where they are being held. González, who has been hospitalised before, has high blood pressure. Gálvez has developed serious respiratory problems while in detention.
With a total of 24 journalists currently held, Cuba is the world’s second biggest prison for the press, after China. Three of those currently in prison were arrested after Raúl Castro took over as acting president on 31 July 2006. The 20 still held since March 2003 are serving prison sentences ranging from 14 to 27 years.