Zapata Tamayo, a dissident jailed in 2003 and sentenced to 25 years on charges of disrespecting authority, died at a Havana hospital on February 23 after refusing food since December to protest prison conditions, the press reported.
Zapata’s death, which sparked condemnation from the international community and an unusual statement of regret from President Raúl Castro, highlighted the terrible conditions of Cuban jails and the inhumane treatment of imprisoned dissidents. It also prompted strong reactions from dissidents on the island.
“We urge President Castro to ensure the proper care of all journalists currently incarcerated,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ Americas program senior coordinator. “We hold the Cuban government responsible for the health and welfare of those imprisoned.”
Guillermo Fariñas, 48, a Cuban journalist and political activist in the city of Santa Clara, has been on a hunger strike since February 24 to protest Zapata’s death and demand the release of more than 20 jailed dissidents—including several reporters—suffering serious ailments, his colleague Licet Zamora told CPJ in a telephone interview. He was rushed to a hospital on Wednesday after his condition deteriorated, according to The Associated Press, but was later released.
Fariñas, who almost died in 2006 after an extended hunger strike to protest restrictions on Internet access, hasn’t had food or water for a week and was showing symptoms of dehydration, hypoglycemia, and low blood pressure, Zamora said on Monday.
Jailed journalists Pedro Argüelles Morán and Adolfo Fernandez Sainz also reacted to Zapata’s death and fasted for three days, Laura Pollán, a leading human rights activist told CPJ.
Pollán, wife of jailed independent journalist Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez—a 2008 CPJ awardee—told CPJ that jailed journalists Pedro Argüelles Morán, José Luis García Paneque, Alfredo Pulido López, Adolfo Fernández Saínz, Normando Hernández González, Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, José Ubaldo Izquierdo Hernández, and Fabio Prieto Llorente continue to suffer serious illnesses while receiving inadequate attention.
CPJ research shows that that the health of Cuban journalists has seriously deteriorated amid poor prison conditions and insufficient health care. Relatives and friends described health problems ranging from diabetes and a tumor to pneumonia and cataracts. In some cases, they say, the journalists have received little medical attention. They say poor and unsanitary prison conditions have exacerbated the medical problems. Pre-existing ailments have worsened in prison, while a host of serious new illnesses have arisen among those jailed.
Cuba continues to be one of the worlds’s leading jailers of journalists—behind only Iran and China—with 22 independent journalists currently imprisoned. Twenty of these journalists were jailed during the March 2003 crackdown, known as the Black Spring. After perfunctory, closed-door trials, the journalists were handed prison sentences of up to 28 years in prison on antistate charges stemming from their reporting. The journalists had worked for independent news agencies, filing stories by phone and fax to overseas news outlets and Web sites.
“Journalists in Cuba have paid a huge price solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression,” said Lauría. “Seven years is enough; these sentences are cruel and vindictive. We call on President Castro to immediately and unconditionally release all journalists and grant freedom of expression and information to all Cuban citizens.”