New York, November 18, 2003—Imprisoned Cuban journalist Bernardo Rogelio Arévalo Padrón was released last week after serving his six-year sentence on “disrespect” charges. In a phone interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), he described physical and psychological torture at the hands of prison authorities.
“The allegations of torture are extremely troubling and warrant an immediate investigation,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper, “and increases our concern for the other 28 journalists in jail in Cuba who have alleged mistreatment.”
Arévalo Padrón was released from the Ariza maximum-security prison, in the central province of Cienfuegos, on November 13. The journalist said he had been physically and psychologically tortured while in jail. In April 1998, he said, two prison officers severely beat him in the face and back after he refused to chant pro-government slogans. Arévalo Padrón was then punished and placed in a small cell where he did not receive immediate medical attention. “There I stayed for one year and two months,” the journalist said. As a result of the beating, his nasal septum was broken, and he can breathe only through his left nostril, he said.
Jailed for showing “disrespect” to Castro
Arévalo Padrón, founder of the Línea Sur Press news agency, was sentenced in October 1997 to six years in prison for showing “disrespect” to President Fidel Castro Ruz and Cuban State Council member Carlos Lage. The charges stemmed from a series of interviews Arévalo Padrón gave in 1997 to Miami-based radio stations in which he alleged that while Cuban farmers starved, helicopters were taking fresh meat from the countryside to the dinner tables of President Castro, Lage, and other Communist Party officials.
The journalist began his sentence on November 18, 1997, in the Ariza maximum-security prison. On January 6, 2000, the journalist was transferred to Labor Camp No. 20, where he served four months. On April 6, 2000, he was sent to the overcrowded and unsanitary San Marcos Labor Camp, where he worked chopping weeds with a machete in sugar cane fields. Prison authorities threatened to send him to a maximum-security prison if he did not meet his production quota.
Because of the strenuous work at the labor camps, Arévalo Padrón developed lower back pain and coronary blockage. In September 2000, prison authorities finally allowed him to see a doctor, who determined that Arévalo Padrón’s poor health disqualified him from physical work, and that he should permanently wear an orthopedic brace.
In October 2000, prison authorities informed Arévalo Padrón that his parole had been approved. Yet Arévalo Padrón remained in the labor camp, a violation of Cuban law.
On January 21, 2001, Arévalo Padrón was transferred to the El Diamante Labor Camp, where prison officers continued to harass him. On June 30, 2001, the journalist was moved to a labor camp near Ariza Prison. There, Arévalo Padrón was assigned to a cubicle for chronically ill prisoners where he was exempt from physical work but lacked adequate medical attention and food and remained jailed in unsanitary conditions. Despite his legal right to be paroled, his jailers told him that he would serve out his entire sentence.
In July 2002, Arévalo Padrón was transferred back to the maximum-security Ariza Prison, where his wife could visit him less frequently and conditions were harsher. In December 2002, he contracted leptospirosis, a severe bacterial infection for which he was treated with antibiotics his wife gave him. “They should have sent me to the [Cienfuegos] Provincial Hospital and isolated me because it was an infection, but they did not do it,” said Arévalo Padrón.
Speaking about his future plans, Arévalo Padrón told CPJ that he will continue working as an independent journalist. He said that on October 10, 2003, while he was still in prison, he and jailed dissident Jorge Luis García Pérez, known as “Antúnez,” founded an independent news agency called José Maceo, after a hero of the Cuban independence war against Spain.
Between January 2001 and March 2003, Arévalo Padrón was the only journalist in the Americas jailed for practicing his profession. In March, 28 independent Cuban journalists, about a third of the independent Cuban press, were detained in a massive government crackdown and imprisoned.