New York, April 7, 2004—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) renews its call for the Cuban government to release the 29 independent journalists sentenced to lengthy prison terms last April 7.
The detention of political dissidents and journalists-who were accused of being “counterrevolutionaries” at the service of the United States-began on March 18, 2003, during the first week of the Iraq war, 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’ summary trials were held on April 3 and 4 behind closed doors. Many journalists did not have access to their lawyers before the trials. In several cases, the lawyers representing the journalists only had a few hours to prepare their defenses.
Some journalists were tried under Article 91 of the Penal Code, which imposes lengthy prison sentences or death for those who act against “the independence or the territorial integrity of the State.” Other journalists were prosecuted for violating Law 88 for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy, which mandates up to 20 years in prison for anyone who commits acts “aimed at subverting the internal order of the Nation and destroying its political, economic, and social system.”
On April 7, 2003, courts across the island announced prison sentences for the journalists ranging from 14 to 27 years. They remained imprisoned in jails administered by the State Security Department until April 24, when most were sent to prisons located hundreds of miles from their homes. In June, the People’s Supreme Tribunal, Cuba’s highest court, dismissed the appeals for annulment (recursos de casación), which the journalists filed in April, thus upholding their convictions.
In a press conference with the state–run media and foreign correspondents on March 25, 2004, in Havana, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque spoke about the summary trials and said that Cuba, like any other nation, had the right to defend itself and punish “those who collaborate with a foreign power that attacks their country.” Pérez Roque also argued that the summary trials had not violated the journalists’ right to due process guarantees.
The imprisoned journalists, who are being held in maximum–security facilities, have denounced their unsanitary prison conditions, inadequate medical care, solitary confinement, and lack of access to the press and television. They have also complained of receiving foul–smelling and rotten food. Many, including CPJ 2003 International Press Freedom Award recipient Manuel Vázquez Portal, have been in solitary confinement.
To demand better conditions, some imprisoned journalists have gone on hunger strikes several times. After learning about the hunger strikes, other jailed journalists have joined them in solidarity. Because prison authorities refused to allow outside contact with the strikers or to disclose information about them, their families have been unable to check on their health. As punishment for their involvement in the strikes, the journalists have been dispersed and transferred to other prisons.
“The 29 courageous journalists have done nothing more than practice their profession,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We demand that they be released and allowed to continue their work.”