Jailed journalist released

New York, March 23, 2001 — Manuel Antonio González Castellanos, correspondent for the independent news agency CubaPress in the eastern province of Holguín, was freed on February 26 after serving the bulk of his 31-month sentence for criticizing President Fidel Castro Ruz.

Independent journalist Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, founder of the Línea Sur Press news agency in the province of Cienfuegos, continues to languish in a Cuban jail. According to CPJ research, Arévalo Padrón is now the last remaining journalist in the Americas region to be incarcerated for his work.

Arévalo Padrón has been imprisoned since 1997 for showing “lack of respect” for Castro and Cuban State Council member Carlos Lage. He continues to be held in the labor camp El Diamante, in Cienfuegos, despite being eligible for parole. His health has suffered as a result of his prolonged imprisonment.

CPJ has been unable to contact González Castellanos since his release, due to a telephone communication blockade that the Cuban government imposed last December but has intensified in the past few weeks, making communication with Cuba virtually impossible.

The Cuban government blocked direct phone calls from the United States after the U.S. government rejected a 10 percent surcharge on U.S. calls that Havana levied in retaliation for the Clinton administration’s decision to release Cuban government funds frozen in U.S. banks to compensate relatives of three Cuban-American pilots killed when their plane was shot down by the Cuban Air Force in 1996.

Because the Cuban government controls all mass media and restricts free access to the Internet, Cuban independent journalists struggle to transmit their news reports abroad. When independent journalists try to place overseas collect calls through the state telephone monopoly ETECSA, for example, operators often decline to connect their calls.

González Castellanos was arrested on October 1, 1998, for making critical statements about President Castro to state security agents who had stopped and insulted him as he was walking home from a visit with a friend. After awaiting trial in the Holguín Provisional Prison for seven months, he was convicted by the San Germán Municipal Court, in Holguín Province, on May 6, 1999. His alleged crime was “disrespect,” and he was sentenced to two years and seven months’ imprisonment.

While the charges against González Castellanos did not arise directly from his work, local journalists suspected that the journalist was deliberately provoked by state security agents in retaliation for his reporting on the activities of political dissidents.

On June 30, 1999, González Castellanos was transferred to Holguín’s maximum-security prison, “Cuba Sí,” where guards routinely harassed him. When he complained about the poor hygienic conditions, the guards threatened to suspend his visiting rights. In late 1999, local independent journalists reported that state security officers had promised other inmates special privileges in exchange for harassing González Castellanos and passing on information about him to the authorities.

On March 3, 2000, González Castellanos was transferred back to Holguín Provisional Prison. On June 26, he was confined in a punishment cell for 10 days, after being assaulted by the prison’s “reeducation” officer and a guard for protesting the confiscation of his handwritten notes.

Upon release from the punishment cell, González Castellanos was placed in a labor unit. He had a severe cold for two months and lost considerable weight, but was denied proper medical attention. The journalist’s condition improved only after his family managed to send him medication.

In mid-November, 2000, González Castellanos (who was being denied the parole for which he was eligible) was told that he was one of 60 prisoners being transferred to a labor camp, where conditions were less harsh. But his transfer was abruptly cancelled on the day it was supposed to take place.