After Raúl Castro formally took over as Cuba’s president in February 2008, his government signed the UN covenants on human rights, something his brother, Fidel, had refused to do. Raúl also ordered the release of 130 political prisoners. However, if anyone thought that the new president was going to soften Fidel’s hard line towards free expression in Cuba they have been proved wrong. Critical voices continue to be silenced and in recent months there has been another crackdown against journalists and writers in the country.
In August 2010, I wrote in these pages about the release of a number of writers, journalists and librarians who had been arrested and sentenced during the ‘Black Spring’ of March 2003. The releases came as a result of talks between the Cuban government, the Catholic Church and the then Spanish foreign minister. At the time, many lobby groups expressed concern that the dissidents were being forced into exile as a precondition of their release and that the Cuban government was, in reality, attempting to stamp out oppositional voices in the country.
Human Rights Watch reports that Raúl Castro has incarcerated scores of political prisoners since taking power. A provision of the criminal code allows his government to imprison individuals without them ever having committed a crime; merely the allegation that they are ‘dangerous’ and might commit one in the future is enough. Many dissidents have been imprisoned for ‘dangerousness’, in violation of their right to free expression and association.
On 16 September 2012, Calixto Ramón Martínez Arias, a journalist for the independent news agency Hablemos Press, was arrested by the Cuban Revolutionary Police at José Martí International Airport. According to PEN, he had been investigating allegations that medicine provided by the World Health Organisation to fight the cholera outbreak in Cuba, which began in mid-2012, was being kept at the airport instead of being distributed. The government had allegedly tried to downplay the seriousness of the contagion. Martínez Arias was detained in a police station near the airport. After he complained about his arrest, he was beaten and pepper-sprayed in the eyes. In response, the journalist reportedly called out, ‘Abajo Raúl, abajo Fidel’ (‘Down with Raúl, down with Fidel’). He was held at the police station for ten days and was later transferred to Combinado del Este prison, where he remains at the time of writing.
Martínez Arias has not been informed of any official charges against him and his lawyer has not been allowed to access his case file. It is believed that he is accused of ‘disrespect’ towards President Raúl Castro and former president Fidel Castro, which carries a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment. Martínez Arias has been in trouble with the authorities before and was arrested several times in May and June 2012.
PEN is concerned for Martínez Arias’s welfare in prison. He was apparently hospitalised after being injured in his left eye, and in November he began a 33-day hunger strike to protest against his prison conditions. On 12 December he was placed in solitary confinement after informing Hablemos Press of the poor conditions in which he is held. This was in defiance of an order by prison authorities forbidding him to use the telephone. In early January this year, Martínez Arias claimed that he was denied medical attention despite running a fever.
José Antonio Torres, another journalist and a former correspondent for the government newspaper Granma, was arrested in February 2011 after writing articles about the mismanagement of an aqueduct project in Santiago de Cuba and the installation of fibre-optic cable between Venezuela and Cuba. President Raúl Castro initially praised Torres’s article on the aqueduct, commenting in Granma on its publication in July 2010: ‘This is the spirit that should characterise the [Communist] Party press: transparent, critical and self-critical.’ Torres’s report on the fibre-optic cable was published four months later. The journalist had written in neutral terms that Vice President Ramiro Valdés was responsible for supervising both projects.
In mid-June last year, following a closed trial, Torres was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He was further punished by the revocation of his university degree in journalism. Torres is reportedly concerned that by appealing against his conviction he risks increasing his sentence. Cuba’s state-run media has made only brief references to his case and little is known about the charges against him. There are rumours that he may have been in contact with the US diplomatic mission in Havana – a common claim made about those critical of the Cuban government.
Readers might like to send appeals protesting the imprisonment of Calixto Ramón Martínez Arias in violation of his right to freedom of expression, guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Cuba signed in 2008, and calling for his release; expressing concern that the trial of José Antonio Torres failed to meet international human rights standards; calling on the Cuban authorities to provide assurances that Torres’s sentence is not related to his reporting and to make public details of his trial; and urging the Cuban authorities to remove unlawful restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly in Cuba.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Raúl Castro Ruz
President of the Republic of Cuba
Fax: 00 41 22 758 9431 (Cuba office in Geneva); and 00 1 212 779 1697 (via Cuban Mission to UN)
Email: email@example.com (c/o Cuban Mission to UN)
His Excellency General Abelardo Coloma Ibarra
Interior Minister of Cuba
Fax: 00 1 212 779 1697 (via Cuban Mission to UN)
Her Excellency Esther G Armenteros Cárdenas
The Embassy of Cuba in the United Kingdom
167 High Holborn
London WC1V 6PA
Fax: 020 7836 2602 / Email: firstname.lastname@example.org