CPJ concerned about health of imprisoned journalist

New York, April 23, 2003—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is very concerned about the deteriorating health of Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an independent journalist who is currently imprisoned at the national headquarters of the State Security Department (DSE), the Cuban political police. He was arrested on March 20.

Espinosa Chepe, 62, has written numerous articles about the Cuban economy for the Miami-based Web site Cubanet (www.cubanet.org) and the Madrid-based online daily Encuentro en la red (www.cubaencuentro.com). A critic of the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, the journalist also hosted a weekly news segment that was taped in Cuba and aired by the U.S. government–funded, Miami-based radio station Radio Martí, which broadcasts to Cuba.

Espinosa Chepe suffers from several medical conditions, including hepatitis, high blood pressure, and liver failure. According to his wife, independent journalist Miriam Leiva, Espinosa Chepe shares a small, dimly lit and poorly ventilated cell with three other men. Since his imprisonment, Espinosa Chepe’s health has severely deteriorated. He has jaundiced skin, his legs have swollen, and he has lost about 30 pounds. While prison doctors have given him medication for his high blood pressure, authorities have neglected to treat his other maladies and have refused to give him medication that his wife has brought for him.

On April 18, Leiva visited her husband accompanied by Dr. Ileana Prieto Espinosa, who is the journalist’s niece and has followed his health for several years. According to Prieto Espinosa, the journalist has developed acute symptoms of liver failure. She recommended that he be seen by a specialist immediately and taken to a hospital.

Leiva told CPJ that she has repeatedly alerted DSE officers to her husband’s worsening health. On April 20, she received a phone call from a DSE officer who told her that her husband had been taken to a military hospital in the capital, Havana. Leiva said that the DSE would not disclose her husband’s health status. When she phoned the military hospital for information, doctors refused to respond, claiming they needed permission from the DSE to disclose information about the journalist’s condition.

On April 21, DSE officers told Leiva that her husband had been taken to the military hospital for medical tests and that she would be allowed to visit him at the hospital on April 22. Yesterday, during the 30-minute visit, Leiva learned that Espinosa Chepe had not been treated or tested. When Leiva confronted a doctor about it, the doctor said that he could order a checkup but added that since the journalist’s transfer back to prison could be imminent, the checkup might not occur. Leiva fears that Espinosa Chepe’s health may worsen irreversibly if he is returned to prison.

Espinosa Chepe is one of 28 independent Cuban journalists who were detained in a massive crackdown on the opposition and the independent press last month. His house was searched on March 19 and he was detained early on March 20. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison on April 7, for acting against “the independence or the territorial integrity of the State” (Article 91 of the Penal Code) and for violating Law 88 for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy.