Laura Pollán Toledo, wife of jailed journalist Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez. (AP/Franklin Reyes)
Laura Pollán Toledo, wife of jailed journalist Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez. (AP/Franklin Reyes)

Church says Cuba will release political prisoners

New York, July 7, 2010—The Catholic Church in Cuba said today that the government of President Raúl Castro has agreed to release dozens of political prisoners over the next several weeks, raising hopes that numerous imprisoned journalists could be freed. 

“If imprisoned journalists are freed, as suggested by the church’s announcement, it cannot come a moment too soon. These journalists and their families have experienced the anguish of unjustified imprisonment and cruel treatment,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “We call on President Castro to release all jailed journalists and to allow freedom of expression for all Cuban citizens.”

In a statement, Cuba’s Roman Catholic Church said five political prisoners would be released immediately, with 47 freed over a three- to four-month period. The statement, issued by church spokesman Orlando Márquez Hidalgo, said all of those to be freed had been jailed during the March 2003 crackdown against dissidents and independent journalists, a period that came to be known as the Black Spring.

The announcement came after a meeting in Havana today between Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, head of Cuba’s Roman Catholic Church, and President Castro, the church said in its statement. Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs Miguel Angel Moratinos and his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodríguez, also participated in the meeting, according Granma, Cuba’s official paper.        

Cuba’s Catholic Church has been actively negotiating with the Cuban government for the release of political prisoners. In May, the church reached an agreement with the Cuban government to transfer political prisoners being held in prisons far from their families to facilities closer to their homes, press reports said. Six imprisoned journalists, including CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, were transferred to jails closer to their homes.

The health of Cuban journalists has seriously deteriorated amid poor prison conditions and insufficient health care, CPJ research shows. Relatives and friends have described health problems ranging from diabetes and tumors to pneumonia and cataracts. In some cases, journalists received scant medical attention; in most cases, poor and unsanitary prison conditions exacerbated medical problems. Pre-existing ailments worsened in prison, while a host of serious new illnesses arose.

With 21 independent journalists currently imprisoned, Cuba is one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists—behind only Iran and China. Twenty of these journalists were jailed during the March 2003 crackdown. 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.

Over the past seven years, Cuba has freed a small number of journalists in exchange for international political concessions, but it has released none since February 2008, CPJ research shows.