UPDATED: Jailed Cuban journalist grows desperate

On July 18, Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta went on a hunger strike to demand better prison conditions. Three days later, he sewed his mouth shut to intensify his protest. This is not the first time that Herrera Acosta has self-mutilated in order to garner attention for his plight.

Herrera Acosta, a trained cook and metalworker, became involved with dissident groups early in his twenties. In Cuba, where the state is the sole employer, he was unable to find work because of his political affiliations. In 1997, he was sent to prison for the first time, sentenced to a five-year term on antistate charges. Immediately after his release, Herrera Acosta became the Guantanamo correspondent for one of the independent news agencies that were growing across Cuba at the time. But just two years later, during a massive crackdown on the dissidence and the independent press known in Cuba as the “Black Spring,” he was again sent to prison. Sentenced under Law 88 for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy, Herrera Acosta was given 20 years, of which he has only served a little over five years.

In 2003, Herrera Acosta became one of 29 journalists sent to prison in retaliation for their writing. Today, 20 remain behind bars. Among this group, Herrera Acosta has always been known for his aggressive, often violent protests against prison conditions. Over the last five years, he has gone on countless hunger strikes and has self-mutilated on several occasions–mainly by sewing his mouth shut. In retaliation, friends and family have told CPJ, prison authorities hand him harsher punishments and are more inclined to mistreat him.

Friends who knew him before he was jailed say Herrera Acosta was always feisty. But many are concerned about his current psychological status, which became more critical after the death of his 14-year old daughter, Lianet, in a car accident in March of this year.

However, Melba Santana Ariz, wife of fellow political prisoner Alfredo Dominguez Batista, said prison authorities are denying Herrera Acosta all medical treatment, including psychological help, as well as religious assistance. The denials are punishment for his behavior. According to Santana Ariz, who visited the prison where Herrera Acosta is being held yesterday but was unable to see him, the three stitches he inflicted on himself nine days ago have not been removed. What’s more, they’ve become infected.

And yet from his humid and windowless cell in the Eastern Holguin Provincial Prison, Herrera Acosta has vowed not to give up until authorities grant him better living conditions, which include commodities as simple as medication and edible food.  

UPDATE: According to reports from the eastern city Holguín, Herrera Acosta was transferred today to the infirmary at the Holguín Provincial Prison. The journalist is believed to be in very bad health but there are no further details, Melba Santana Ariz, wife of political prisoner Alfredo Dominguez Batista, told the Miami-based nonprofit organization Directorio Democratico Cubano. Santana Ariz, whose husband is also on a hunger strike in support of Herrera Acosta’s demand for better prison conditions, said she had been inside the prison today but was again unable to see the journalist.