Some 15 activists from Reporters Without Borders accompanied by figures from the world of culture occupied the Cuban tourism bureau in Paris at around 10 a.m. today to protest against a wave of arrests of journalists in Cuba.
They symbolically turned the office (located at 280 Boulevard Raspail in the 14th arrondissement) into a prison, hanging a banner saying "Cuba = prison" over the facade, and painting bars on the windows, behind which they put photos of recently detained Cuban journalists. The activists left the Cuban tourism bureau at 2 p.m. (12:00 GMT) at the moment when the trial of journalists Raúl Rivero and Ricardo González was due to start in Havana.
Cuban writers Zoe Valdés and Eduardo Manet as well as personalities such as Jean-Jacques Beinex, Marek Halter and Yves Simon took part in the occupation in a show of solidarity with the dissident journalists.
On 18 March, on the eve of the US offensive against Iraq, the Cuban government took advantage of the international news focus on the war to launch an unprecedented wave of repression. Nearly 80 dissidents have been arrested including 24 independent journalists.
They include poet and journalist Raúl Rivero, winner of the Reporters Without Borders - France Foundation award in 1997, and Ricardo González, the Reporters Without Borders correspondent in Havana. Both were to be tried today in Havana. Rivero faces 20 years in prison while González faces a life sentence. The trials began yesterday and are due to finish on Monday (7 April).
While the world debates whether showing the pictures of prisoners of war violates their dignity, Reporters Without Borders says showing the faces of imprisoned journalists restores their dignity and saves them from the oblivion to which President Fidel Castro wants to consign them by locking them away. Cuba, a country where the state has a monopoly of news reporting, has now become the world’s biggest prison for journalists.
Reporters Without Borders yesterday placed an announcement in the French daily Libération saying: "Far from Baghdad, Cuba wages an undeclared war and imprisons freedom." Following this brief occupation of the Cuban tourism bureau, Reporters Without Borders was resolved on staging further protests if the journalists were convicted in the trials.
Reporters Without Borders calls on the Cuban authorities to release the detained journalists and to drop the charges against them. The organisation call calls on the European Union to suspend all consideration of Cuba’s request to join the Cotonou accords* as long as these journalists are not set free.
A total of 78 dissidents were arrested from 18 to 24 March. They are accused of acting "against the independence and territorial integrity of the state" in connivance with the US interests section in Havana (which substitutes for an embassy in the absence of diplomatic relations). At least 24 of the detainees are independent journalists. Their homes were subject to searches, in some cases lasting more than 10 hours, in which police confiscated computers, personal documents, books, fax machines and type-writers.
This wave of arrests ends a period of relative tolerance which Cuba’s independent press seemed to have been enjoying for the past few months. Taking advantage of this let-up, several journalists in December 2002 had launched a magazine called De Cuba (available at www.rsf.org), which was the first attempt to challenge the government monopoly of news reporting in 10 years. The arrest of González, De Cuba’s editor as well as Reporters Without Borders’ correspondent, put an end to this bi-monthly publication, whose last issue came out on 27 February.
The Cuban Committee for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), a group that is illegal but tolerated, published details of the prosecutor’s charges against the 78 dissidents on 2 April. According to the committee, the prosecutor has asked for life sentences for 11 of them (including three journalists). The prison sentences requested for the others range from 10 to 30 years and total more than 900 years.
On the first day of hearings yesterday, eight journalists were tried in Havana and four were tried in the provinces. According to the news website cubanet.org, the indictments were confirmed at the end of the hearing for four of them, Adolfo Fernández Sainz, Normando Hernández, Mario Enrique Mayo and Alejandro González Raga. The verdicts in the trials held on the first day could be issued on Monday. Foreign diplomats and the international press were not allowed into the courtrooms. Only relatives were able to attend. Several of the defendants have no lawyers.
The trial of Raúl Rivero and Ricardo González
Rivero, who is the editor of the clandestine news agency Cuba Press, and González, who also heads the Manuel Márquez Sterling Association of independent journalists, are among those who are due to be tried today. The two are scheduled to be tried at the 10 de Octubre municipal court in Havana at a session starting at 8 a.m. They have a lawyer, Máximo Averóz. Rivero’s wife Blanca Reyes said Averóz was able to meet with the two detained journalists yesterday.
Reporters Without Borders has obtained a copy of the indictment against them. It requests life imprisonment for González and 20 years for Rivero. They are charged under article 81 of the criminal code stating that: "whoever, in the interests of a foreign state, carries out an action with the aim of jeopardising the independence of the Cuban state or its territorial integrity, is liable to a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison or the death penalty." The prosecutor claims that there are aggravating circumstances as regards both defendants.
Calling both journalists "unpatriotic," the indictment claims that, "they assumed the guise of independent journalists... with the aim of forming a group of counter-revolutionaries ready to act according to the goals pursued by the US government... The two defendants participated in the creation of a subversive magazine which they called De Cuba in order to provide false information and facilitate US attacks against the Cuban social system."
The indictment also accuses them of meeting several times with representatives of the US interests section in Havana and of collaborating with "counter-revolutionary" and "anti-Cuban" news media based in the United States and with various international organisations such as Reporters Without Borders. Rivero is additionally accused of being "a provocative violator of social norms."
Four journalists already imprisoned
Four journalists were already in prison in Cuba before 18 March. They are Bernardo Arévalo Padrón of the news agency Línea Sur Press, who was sentenced in November 1997 to six years in prison for "affront" to the president and vice-president; Carlos Brizuela Yera, a contributor to the CPIC news agency, and Lester Téllez Castro, editor of the Agencia de Prensa Libre Avileña, who were arrested on 4 March 2002 in the central town of Ciego de Ávila while protesting against a physical attack by police on a Cuba Press journalist; and Carlos Alberto Domínguez, who has been held since 23 February 2002 without being charged.
The Cuban constitution stipulates that news media cannot be privately owned, under any circumstances. Banned from being published in their own country, about 100 independent journalists count on Cuban exile groups in the United States to publish their news reports, usually on websites. Subject to constant harassment, some 60 independent journalists have had to go into exile since 1995.
*The Cotonou accords grant 77 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (the ACP group) economic aid and preferential trade relations with the European Union.