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In Cuba, health of jailed journalists deteriorates

New York, June 20, 2007—Families and friends of eight independent Cuban journalists who have been unjustly imprisoned since 2003 say that the health of their loved ones has seriously deteriorated in recent months amid poor prison conditions and insufficient health care.

In a series of interviews with the Committee to Protect Journalists, relatives and friends described health problems ranging from diabetes and a tumor to pneumonia and cataracts. In some cases, they say, the journalists have received little medical attention. They say hot and unsanitary prison conditions have exacerbated the medical problems. Pre-existing ailments have worsened in prison, the families and friends say, while a host of serious new illnesses have arisen among those jailed.

Twenty-three of the 25 journalists imprisoned today in Cuba were jailed during a massive crackdown on the independent press in March 2003. After perfunctory, closed-door trials, the journalists were handed prison sentences of up to 28 years in prison on antistate charges stemming from their reporting. The journalists had worked for independent news agencies, filing stories by phone and fax to overseas news outlets and Web sites. Cuba is one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, second only to China.

“The imprisonment of these eight journalists has always been patently unjust, but with their health deteriorating it is simply inhumane,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We hold Cuban authorities responsible for the welfare of these eight men, and urge them to immediately release all of the independent journalists imprisoned in Cuba.”

Here is a rundown on the eight cases:

José Gabriel Ramón Castillo is suffering from a series of ailments that have seriously weakened him, his wife Blanca Rosa Echavarría told CPJ. Ramón Castillo, who is imprisoned at the Boniato Prison in Havana, has been diagnosed with cirrhosis, diabetes, hypertension, and stomach ulcers. According to Echavarría, her husband has also developed circulation problems in his legs and skin growths on his face and body. Echavarría told CPJ that her husband has received treatment for diabetes since February but is given medication only sporadically for his other ailments.

Normando Hernández González has been diagnosed with intestinal ailments that make it difficult to eat and, last month, suffered a bout of pneumonia, his wife Yaraí Reyes told CPJ. Reyes said doctors at the Kilo 7 Prison in central Camagüey said her husband also tested positive for tuberculosis but had not developed the disease. Reyes told CPJ that her husband is being treated at the prison infirmary but had not been treated at a hospital this year.  

After severe abdominal pain, José Luis García Paneque was diagnosed with a kidney tumor this month, his wife Yamilé Llánez Labrada told CPJ. Llánez Labrada said that her husband was taken to a hospital in early June but authorities returned him to Las Mangas Prison in Granma province shortly after. Llánez Labrada said that it was unclear how doctors intended to address the tumor. García Paneque had previously been diagnosed with internal bleeding and malnutrition. Llánez Labrada told CPJ that she and her four children were forced to flee Cuba in March after being subjected to continuous harassment by authorities. The family is now in the United States.

Omar Ruiz Hernández is suffering from high blood pressure and circulation problems, which have been made more difficult by the severe heat and lack of ventilation in the Nieves Morejón Prison in the central Sancti Spíritus province, said his wife, Bárbara Maritza Rojo Arias. At his last medical check-up, doctors told Ruiz Hernández that one of his retinas had been detached, Rojo Arias told CPJ. No treatment is under way, she said.

Pablo Pacheco Ávila was hospitalized on April 26 for inflammation in the right knee, his wife, Oleyvis García Echeandía, told CPJ. Pacheco Ávila underwent surgery for cartilage damage on May 28 and remains hospitalized, according to García Echeandía. Doctors told Pacheco Ávila that pre-existing kidney problems had worsened in the last year. García Echeandía said that her husband has high blood pressure as well.

García Echeandía told CPJ that independent journalist Pedro Argüelles Morán, who is imprisoned at the Canaleta Prison in Ciego de Ávila, was hospitalized in April for cataracts in both eyes, which have caused the journalist to lose much of his sight. Doctors at the Ciego de Ávila provincial hospital also diagnosed Argüelles Morán with a benign tumor in the prostate and severe arthritis.

Laura Pollán, wife of independent journalist Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, said her husband has had numerous skin growths surgically removed this year. Pollán told CPJ that journalist Víctor Rolando Arroyo had similar procedures done.

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