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Ending dark era, Cuba frees last jailed journalist

Newly freed Cuban political prisoners arrive in Spain. (AFP/Pierre-Philippe Marcou)

New York, April 8, 2011--The Cuban government on Thursday released the last journalist remaining in its prisons, ending a dark, eight-year-long era in which the island nation was one of the world's worst jailers of the press, at one time imprisoning nearly 30 independent reporters and writers. The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed relief today that Albert Santiago Du Bouchet Hernández has been freed, a milestone in an intensive, international advocacy effort led by the Catholic Church, the Spanish government, and international press and human rights groups.

Du Bouchet Hernández arrived in Madrid this morning after being released from jail the previous day, press reports said. Du Bouchet Hernández was exiled to Spain as part of a group of 37 newly freed political prisoners and more 200 of their family members, according to The Associated Press. The detainees and their families were flown from Havana on a flight chartered by the Spanish government, press reports said.

"We are greatly relieved that the last independent Cuban journalist still in prison has been released. A years-long nightmare of suffering and humiliation for a large group of journalists and their families has finally come to an end," said Carlos Lauría, CPJ's senior program coordinator for the Americas. "However, independent journalists in Cuba continue to face harassment and intimidation for their work. We call on the Cuban government now to dismantle the obsolete legal framework that punishes independent reporting with jail, and to grant freedom of expression to all Cubans."

Du Bouchet Hernández, former director of the Havana-based independent news agency Havana Press, was serving a three-year sentence on charges of "disrespect" and distributing enemy propaganda. At the time of his release, he was being held at the Melena II Prison, in Havana province. He faced appalling prison conditions, including poor food and overflowing wastewater, colleague Roberto De Jesús Guerra said.

In a July 7, 2010, deal brokered by the Catholic Church with the help of the Spanish government, Cuban authorities agreed to release 52 political prisoners--including numerous journalists--who had been rounded up in a March 2003 crackdown on dissent known as the Black Spring.

The government swept up 29 journalists in all in the Black Spring, tried them in secret, one-day proceedings on broad antistate charges, and sentenced them to terms of up to 27 years. A handful had been released over the years even as some additional independent journalists, such as Du Bouchet Hernández, who was arrested in 2009, were detained.

The deal announced in July 2010 led to the gradual release of all Black Spring prisoners, although most were forced to leave the country for Spain. Du Bouchet Hernández was not directly included in the 2010 agreement, but his freedom came with a similar condition of exile.

Only three Black Spring journalists, Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, Iván Hernández Carrillo, and Pedro Argüelles Morán, have been allowed to remain in Cuba after rejecting exile to Spain as a condition of release. The three were freed on parole.

CPJ advocated intensively for the release of the 29 Black Spring journalists, as it did with Du Bouchet, documenting their unjust prosecution and mistreatment in prison in dozens of reports, news alerts, and letters. CPJ met with Latin American ambassadors at the United Nations and worked through diplomatic channels to bring attention to their plight. Starting in 2007, CPJ engaged Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to help secure the releases.

The newly freed journalists have been recounting their imprisonment and liberation in a series of first-person stories, "After the Black Spring," on the CPJ Blog. Today, journalist Juan Adolfo Fernández Saínz describes "the horrors of the hellhole" in prison.

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