As the UN Human Rights Council prepares to hold its universal periodic review of the situation in Cuba on 5 February in Geneva, Reporters Without Borders points out that the Cuban government, for all its denials and claims to have a “clear conscience,” continues to hold 23 journalists solely because of their dissident views and still refuses to permit an independent press.
The press freedom organisation hopes that mediation by other Latin American countries and by Spain, and the new US administration’s declared readiness to dialogue could open the way to the release of the imprisoned journalists.
“Almost a year has passed since Raúl Castro formally took over as president on 24 February 2008, but the few signs of an opening have fallen far short of the expectations of Cuban civil society and those outside the country that support it,” Reporters Without Borders said. “At that time, Cuba signed two UN human rights conventions but it still has not ratified them. The sanctions which the European Union imposed after the March 2003 “Black Spring” were quickly suspended and were finally lifted altogether last June, but Cuba gave nothing in return and continues to be the world’s second biggest prison for journalists, after China.”
The organisation added: “The universal periodic review by the UN Human Rights Council, on which Cuba has a seat, and the announced visit by the UN special rapporteur on torture should not be used to exempt Cuba from the commitments and concrete gestures that these imply. We call on those governments engaged in a dialogue with Cuba to step up mediation aimed at obtaining the release of the imprisoned journalists.”
According to a report released yesterday by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (a Havana-based organisation that is illegal but nonetheless tolerated by the regime), Cuba currently has 205 political prisoners, down from 234 at the beginning of 2008. Although there were a few releases or cases of sentences being suspended for health reasons, the reports says a total of 54 prison inmates died as a result of suicide, violence by criminal detainees or negligence by the prison authorities in 2008, and that there were more than 1,000 brief arrests of suspected dissidents.
Ricardo González Alfonso, the Reporters Without Borders correspondent and editor of the magazine De Cuba, was returned to his cell last year after a long spell in the hospital of Havana’s Combinado del Este prison. He was repeatedly denied the right to speak to his children by telephone in December, after being awarded the 2008 Reporters Without Borders journalist of the year prize. Serving a 20-year jail sentence imposed during the 2003 “Black Spring” and now aged 58, González is currently being held in a damp and unhealthy isolation cell in which his health is deteriorating.
Fabio Prieto Llorente, 45, another independent journalist serving a 20-year sentence imposed in March 2003, is also being kept in solitary confinement. Held in El Guayabo prison on the Isle of Youth, where he is from, he has been on hunger strike since 28 January in protest against the harassment to which he has been subjected by the prison’s guards and the State Security (the political police).
Pablo Pacheco Avila, 38, a reporter with the Cooperativa Avileña de Periodistas Independientes who was also sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2003, was transferred from Morón prison to Canaleta prison in the central province of Ciego de Ávila at the start of January. According to a fellow detainee, he was moved because Morón prison needs to be repaired before the UN special rapporteur’s arrival.
Normando Hernández González, 39, the head of the Colegio de Periodistas Independientes in the central province of Camagüey, is very ill and unable to eat normally, but he did not receive appropriate treatment and was finally admitted to the Combinado del Este prison hospital on 8 January. He is serving a 25-year sentence that was imposed during the “Black Spring.” The Costa Rican government’s offer to take him on humanitarian grounds never received a reply.
Nineteen of the 23 dissident journalists currently imprisoned in Cuba were arrested in 2003. They were given sentences ranging from 14 to 27 years in prison on the alleged grounds that they were “mercenaries in the pay of the United States.”