CPJ concerned about journalists on hunger strike

New York, September 3, 2003— The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned about disturbing new developments in Cuba’s ongoing incarceration of independent journalists.

According to family members, two imprisoned journalists, Manuel Vázquez Portal and Normando Hernández González, joined other jailed dissidents at Boniato Prison in a hunger strike that began on Sunday, August 31. The prison is in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, where the journalists have been jailed since late April.

In a move that may have been aimed at breaking the hunger strike, Vázquez Portal was subsequently transferred to Aguadores Prison, also in Santiago de Cuba, according to family members. Meanwhile, the whereabouts of Hernández González are now unknown, according to his wife, who was unable to get information about her husband from Boniato Prison officials after the hunger strike began.

Word of Vázquez Portal’s transfer came first yesterday when his sister, Xiomara Vázquez Portal, visited the Havana headquarters of the State Security Department (DSE) to inquire about her brother. Subsequently, the journalist’s wife, Yolanda Huerga Cedeño, spoke with a prison official at Aguadores Prison who confirmed the transfer.

Meanwhile, Hernández González’s wife, Yaraí Reyes, told CPJ that she had last visited her husband on August 28, when he told her he would start a hunger strike on August 31. When she later called Boniato Prison for information about her husband, prison officials refused to talk about the matter. Reyes says she does not know her husband’s current whereabouts.

The journalists, who have been placed in maximum-security facilities and are handcuffed any time they leave their cells, have denounced unsanitary prison conditions, inadequate medical attention, solitary confinement, and lack of access to the press and television. They have also complained about receiving foul-smelling and rotten food.

In May, Vázquez Portal’s prison diary was smuggled out of prison. “Thank God my family brought milk, otherwise I would have died of hunger,” he wrote. “My family also had to bring sheets, a blanket, a towel, toothpaste, a mosquito net, etc. Inmates here are only supplied with a pair of shorts and a sleeveless, collarless shirt.”

Vázquez Portal was sentenced to 18 years in prison for violating Law 88 for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy, while Hernández González was sentenced to 25 years in prison for acting against “the independence or the territorial integrity of the State.”

The two are part of a group of 28 independent Cuban journalists who were detained in a massive government clampdown on the opposition and the independent press in March. Their one-day summary trials were held in early April behind closed doors. On April 7, courts across the island announced prison sentences for the journalists, ranging from 14 to 27 years. They remained imprisoned in jails administered by the DSE until April 24, when most were sent to jails located hundreds of miles from their homes.

(For more background and related documents, read “Crackdown in Cuba”.)