CPJ’S mission confirms dire situation for imprisoned journalists and their families

New York, July 18, 2003—Renowned Peruvian journalist Gustavo Gorriti traveled to Cuba last week on behalf of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and confirmed the dire situation for independent Cuban journalists and their families, who are suffering from harassment, humiliating prison conditions, and psychological pressures.

The mission was prompted by the Cuban government’s crackdown this spring on the independent press and the opposition. In all, 28 journalists were arrested, convicted, and given prison sentences ranging from 14 to 27 years. The detentions of these political dissidents and journalists, who are often accused of being “counterrevolutionaries” at the service of the United States, began on March 18 and continued for three days. Police raided and searched the journalists’ homes, confiscating books, typewriters, research materials, cameras, computers, printers, and fax machines.

The journalists’ one-day summary trials were held on April 3 and 4 behind closed doors. The journalists remained imprisoned in several jails administered by the State Security Department (DSE) until April 24, when most were sent to jails located hundreds of miles from their homes.

Based on his stay in Cuba, Gorriti noted that “while Castro boasts that no forced disappearances, no physical torture are inflicted on repressed opponents …, the intense, widespread harassment, pressure, and jail conditions exerted on those opponents undoubtedly amount to psychological torture.”

Gorriti visits with imprisoned journalists’ families
During his stay in the capital, Havana, Gorriti visited the families of imprisoned journalists Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Ricardo González Alfonso, Raúl Rivero, and Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez to convey CPJ’s concern.

Upon his arrival in Havana on July 8, Gorriti visited Miriam Leiva, an independent journalist and the wife of Espinosa Chepe. Gorriti said he was surprised to hear Leiva, who is allowed to see her husband every three months, describe Espinosa Chepe’s severe and worsening cirrhosis; his horrible prison conditions; the immense difficulties she faces trying to visit him; and the belief that he could soon die as a result of these conditions.

Espinosa Chepe’s cirrhosis (a condition that had been under control before his arrest, according to Leiva), along with other ailments that have been exacerbated while in jail, has placed him in and out of hospitals during the last four months, Leiva said. And despite his poor health, Espinosa Chepe was put in solitary confinement at Boniato Prison, one of the worst prisons in Cuba, on July 4. Nine days later, he was sent back to the hospital.

Leiva told Gorriti about Espinosa Chepe’s arrest, trial, and her subsequent ordeal in trying to secure minimal medical treatment for her husband. Leiva recounted Espinosa Chepe’s interrogation at Villa Marista_the DSE headquarters in Havana_and the difficulties she has confronted in trying to seek information about her husband’s health.

On July 9, Gorriti met with Àlida Viso, an independent journalist and the wife of González Alfonso, the president of the journalists’ association Sociedad de Periodistas Manuel Márquez Sterling. González Alfonso is in Prison Kilo 8, located 320 miles (512 kilometers) away from Havana, and is allowed a “conjugal visit” every six months and a “family visit” every three months. Food, medicines, soap, and other personal items can be delivered every four months, but no visit is allowed then. “You travel the length of Cuba to give the personal package to a prison employee, and then head back and hope that the scheduled visit, weeks or months away, won’t be canceled by the prison authorities,” said Gorriti.

Also on July 9, Gorriti visited Blanca Reyes, the wife of journalist and poet Rivero. Reyes recounted that, when Rivero was arrested, people from the neighborhood came out of their homes to see what was happening, and when rumor spread that police were taking Rivero, protests were heard. To avoid confrontation, the police quickly took Rivero away. Reyes told Gorriti that Rivero has lost a lot of weight in prison.

Later that evening, Gorriti visited Laura Pollán, the wife of Maseda, an activist with the Democratic Liberal Party and an independent journalist, who was sent to La Pendiente Prison in central Villa Clara Province. Pollán, who is allowed to visit her husband every three months, told Gorriti that Maseda has been diagnosed with scabies and other skin rashes triggered by the appalling conditions in the prison. Pollán said that prison authorities would not allow her to bring clean sheets and medicines.

Gorriti’s conclusions
In the crackdown on independent journalists and dissidents, Gorriti concluded that the Cuban government may be trying to use the jailed journalists as bargaining chips with the United States to achieve an exchange for the five Cuban spies who were arrested and sentenced to stiff prison terms in the United States two years ago.

This, noted Gorriti, “helps explain the efforts, the pains the Cuban regime went through in trying to depict the dissidents and journalists as ‘mercenaries’ and ‘spies.'”