Imprisoned journalist on hunger strike

New York, May 7, 2004—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned about the health of imprisoned Cuban journalist Manuel Vázquez Portal, who has been on a hunger strike since April 30 to protest prison conditions.

Vázquez Portal, who received one of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Awards in November 2003, is one of 29 journalists currently jailed in Cuba.

On a scheduled family visit on April 30, Vázquez Portal rejected the 30-pound package with food, books, and other items his family is allowed to take him every three months, according to his wife, Yolanda Huerga Cedeño. The journalist told his family he would go on a hunger strike to protest the restrictions on the amount of food he’s entitled to receive. “Manuel said the measure was intended to starve them to death,” said Huerga. The journalist only receives extremely small portions of broth with rice and pasta and foul-smelling grounded meat and soy.

Since early February 2004, Vázquez Portal has been jailed in solitary confinement at Boniato Prison, in eastern Santiago de Cuba Province. He is in a filthy cell filled with rats and with no lighting, according to Huerga.

Under prison regulations applied to imprisoned journalists, most do not see their families for months at a time. Family visits are scheduled every three months, and marital visits every five months.

The imprisoned journalists, who are being held in maximum-security facilities, have denounced their unsanitary prison conditions and inadequate medical care. They have also complained of receiving foul-smelling and rotten food. Although several of them have been transferred to cells with common criminals, others continue in complete isolation. Some may telephone their families once a month, while others are allowed to make a phone call once a week.

“It is unconscionable that these journalists, who were doing nothing more than their work, remain in prison on spurious charges,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We demand that the Cuban government release all 29 journalists immediately.”

Vázquez Portal, a writer and journalist with the independent news agency Grupo de Trabajo Decoro, is one of 29 independent Cuban journalists who were detained in March 2003 in a massive government crackdown on the independent media and political opposition.

His one-day summary trial was held in early April behind closed doors. He was tried under Law 88 for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy, which imposes up to 20 years in prison for committing acts “aimed at subverting the internal order of the Nation and destroying its political, economic, and social system.” On April 7, 2003, the Havana Provincial Tribunal announced he had been sentenced to 18 years in prison.

The journalist remained imprisoned in the Havana headquarters of the State Security Department until April 24, when he was sent to the Boniato Prison in Santiago de Cuba, hundreds of miles from his home.

In May 2003, Vázquez Portal wrote a prison diary, which was later smuggled out of prison, describing the harsh conditions in Boniato Prison. In recognition of the efforts by Cuban independent journalists to disseminate news in a climate of harsh government repression, CPJ honored Vázquez Portal with one of its International Press Freedom Awards last November.

On August 31, 2003, Vázquez Portal joined imprisoned journalist Normando Hernández González and other jailed dissidents at Boniato Prison in a hunger strike that lasted one week. As punishment for their involvement in the hunger strike, Vázquez Portal was transferred to Aguadores Prison.

From November 9 to November 16, 2003, Vázquez Portal held another hunger strike to support other jailed journalists and dissidents who in October began a hunger strike in the Holguín Provincial Prison to protest the mistreatment of an imprisoned colleague.

He was transferred back to Boniato Prison in February 2004.