Newly freed political prisoners at a press conference in Madrid. (AP/Emilio Morenatti)
Newly freed political prisoners at a press conference in Madrid. (AP/Emilio Morenatti)

Newly freed, 6 Cuban journalists arrive in Spain

New York, July 13, 2010—Six Cuban journalists who spent more than seven years in prison for their independent reporting and commentary arrived in Spain today in the first wave of what is expected to be an extensive release of political prisoners by the Cuban government.

“We are extremely relieved by long-overdue release of our six Cuban colleagues,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “We call on the Cuban government to provide the distressed families of those still in jail with detailed and timely information on their promised release. Cuban authorities should move speedily to free all of the remaining jailed journalists.”

Cuban independent journalists Léster Luis González Pentón, Omar Ruíz Hernández, Julio César Gálvez Rodríguez, José Luis García Paneque, and Pablo Pacheco Ávila arrived at Barajas airport aboard an Air Europa flight, international press reports said. Journalist Ricardo González Alfonso arrived on separate Iberia flight, The Associated Press said, citing the Spanish Foreign Ministry. One other political prisoner, identified as the dissident Antonio Villarreal, was also among those who arrived in Spain today.

“I have nothing to celebrate until all my colleagues and political prisoners are released from jail,” Pacheco Ávila told CPJ in a telephone conversation from Madrid. He said he will not rest until the government of President Raúl Castro grants freedom of information, including Internet access, to all Cubans.

Pacheco Ávila thanked the Catholic Church, the Spanish government, and international human rights groups for their advocacy. “I would also like to especially thank CPJ for its important role in advocating for the release of all imprisoned journalists,” he said.    

Yamilé Lláñez Labrada, wife of the newly freed journalist José Luis García Panque, told CPJ that her husband was emotional and exhausted after his arrival in Madrid. “He couldn’t stop crying; he was happy and excited at the same time,” said Lláñez, who spoke to CPJ from Texas, where she relocated after her husband’s arrest.

The Catholic Church in Havana, which along with Spain had led recent negotiations over the prisoners, announced last week that the Cuban government had agreed to release a total of 52 political detainees. Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs Miguel Angel Moratinos appeared to go further today, telling a congressional committee in Madrid that all of Cuba’s political prisoners would be released, the Spanish news agency EFE reported. Cuban human rights defenders say there are more than 150 political prisoners in all.

Prior to today’s release, CPJ research had identified 21 journalists in Cuban prisons for their independent reporting and commentary. All but one of the journalists had been detained in March 2003, in the massive government crackdown on political dissent and independent journalism that came to be known as the Black Spring.

The Spanish Foreign Ministry said today that the exiled Cuban would have legal immigrant status with residency and work permits that will allow them to travel and seek employment.

Below are CPJ capsule reports on the journalists who arrived in Spain today after their release. The capsule reports are from CPJ’s annual census of jailed journalists, conducted in December 2009. Also, see a slideshow of the group’s arrival here.

Léster Luis González Pentón, freelance
Imprisoned: March 18, 2003

A court in the central province of Villa Clara sentenced independent freelance reporter González Pentón in April 2003 to 20 years in prison under Article 91 of the Cuban penal code for acting against “the independence or the territorial integrity of the state.”

The youngest of the imprisoned Cuban journalists, González Pentón, 32, was being held in 2009 at La Pendiente Prison in the northern city of Santa Clara, according to news reports and CPJ interviews. González Pentón suffered from stomach problems, according to Laura Pollán Toledo, a human rights activist and wife of imprisoned journalist Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez. He was allowed occasional visits to his home for good behavior, she said.

Omar Ruiz Hernández, Grupo de Trabajo Decoro
Imprisoned: March 19, 2003

Ruiz Hernández, a reporter for the Havana-based independent news agency Grupo de Trabajo Decoro in the province of Villa Clara, was arrested on March 19, 2003, during the massive crackdown on the island’s dissidents and independent press. He was sentenced in April to 18 years in prison for acting “against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state” under Article 91 of the Cuban penal code.

The reporter, 62, was being held in Nieves Morejón Prison in the central province of Sancti Spíritus, 40 miles (65 kilometers) from his home, his wife, Bárbara Maritza Rojo Arias, told CPJ. He shared quarters with 11 prisoners in a small barracks, she said. The quarters, which he was rarely permitted to leave, had no ventilation and poor lighting. Rojo Arias said other living conditions—including his meals—improved at the prison over the course of 2009. He was allowed a family visit of two hours every two months, his wife told CPJ.

Ruiz Hernández suffered from depression and loss of eyesight. He was also diagnosed with high blood pressure, circulatory problems, and chronic gastrointestinal ailments. Rojo Arias told CPJ that her husband was being treated by prison doctors and that she was allowed to provide him with additional medication.

Julio César Gálvez Rodríguez, freelance
Imprisoned: March 18, 2003

Gálvez Rodríguez worked for government media for 24 years. But in March 2003, as he was working as a freelance reporter in Havana, state security agents arrested him as part of the massive crackdown. He was summarily tried that April under Law 88 for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy and given a 14-year prison sentence. The People’s Supreme Tribunal, Cuba’s highest court, upheld the decision a month later.

In 2009, Gálvez Rodríguez, 65, was being held in solitary confinement at Havana’s Combinado del Este Prison, his partner, Irene Viera Silloy, told CPJ. She said the journalist was allowed one family visit every two months. Gálvez Rodríguez suffered from high cholesterol, hypertension, and respiratory problems, according to CPJ research. Viera Silloy said he was also diagnosed with pneumonia.

Gálvez Rodríguez continued to write from prison, Viera Silloy told CPJ. She said prison authorities briefly revoked the journalist’s phone privileges in September after he refused to wear a prison uniform.

José Luis García Paneque, Libertad
mprisoned: March 18, 2003

A physician by profession, García Paneque, 43, joined the independent news agency Libertad in 1998 after being fired from his job at a hospital in eastern Las Tunas because of his political views. In April 2003, a Cuban court sentenced him to 24 years in prison after he was convicted of acting “against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state” under Article 91 of the Cuban penal code.

García Paneque was being held at Las Mangas Prison in Granma province, according to his wife, Yamilé Llánez Labrada. Although general prison conditions improved in 2009, she said, the reporter still shared a small cell with several other inmates and complained of difficulty sleeping. García Paneque’s parents visited him every 45 days, his wife told CPJ; she and her children, who moved to Texas in 2007, talked to him on the phone monthly.

García Paneque’s health has significantly deteriorated in prison. He has been diagnosed with a kidney tumor, internal bleeding, chronic malnutrition, and pneumonia. Llánez Labrada told CPJ that her husband continued to have digestive problems and suffered from malnutrition.

Pablo Pacheco Ávila, Cooperativa Avileña de Periodistas Independientes
Imprisoned: March 19, 2003

On March 19, 2003, state security agents raided the home of Pacheco Ávila, a reporter for the local independent news agency Cooperativa Avileña de Periodistas Independientes, in central Ciego de Ávila. He was convicted in April under Law 88 for the Protection of Cuba’s Independence and Economy for committing acts “aiming at subverting the internal order of the nation and destroying its political, economic, and social system,” and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Pacheco Ávila, 39, was being held at Canaleta Prison in his home province, his wife, Oleyvis García Echemendía, told CPJ. She said her husband was in generally good health despite having been diagnosed last year with high blood pressure, acute gastritis, and kidney problems. He was housed in a barracks with at least 30 other prisoners.

On March 20, the sixth anniversary of Pacheco Ávila’s arrest, prison authorities granted him a 24-hour home furlough for good behavior. In an interview with U.S.-based Radio Martí, Pacheco Ávila said that while at home, he was able to see his wife and 10-year-old son, and speak by phone with other jailed reporters and family members in other parts of Cuba and abroad.

Ricardo González Alfonso, freelance
Imprisoned: March 18, 2003

González Alfonso, a poet and screenwriter, began reporting for Cuba’s independent press in 1995. He founded the award-winning newsmagazine De Cuba and a Havana-based association of journalists, and then worked as a freelance reporter and Cuba correspondent for the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders. He was taken into custody on March 18, 2003. In April, the Havana Provincial Tribunal found him guilty of violating Article 91 of the Cuban penal code for “acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state,” and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. That June, the People’s Supreme Tribunal Court upheld his conviction.

González Alfonso, 59, was being held at Havana’s Combinado del Este Prison, a two-hour car ride from his family home in the capital, his sister, Graciela González-Degard, told CPJ. The reporter’s small, windowless cell, she said, was hot and humid, and the prison food was poor. As punishment for his refusal to wear a prison uniform, officials denied him religious assistance, barred his family from bringing him clean clothes, and cut family visitation to once every two months.

González-Degard, who lives in New York but visited her brother in August, told CPJ that he was in good health and spirits, though he suffered from hypertension, arthritis, severe allergies to humidity and dust, chronic bronchitis, and several digestive and circulatory problems. During her three-week visit to Havana, she was followed and harassed by state security agents, she said. She also told CPJ that González Alfonso’s two teenage sons had lost employment opportunities as a result of his imprisonment.

Editor’s note: The original version of this alert was extensively updated during the day.