In LR July 2004, I wrote about the case of Adolfo Fernández Saínz, one of thirty-five writers, journalists and librarians sentenced in April 2003 under laws governing the protection of the Cuban state. Another journalist, Normando Hernández González, was also arrested as part of this clampdown on alleged dissidents, in which seventy-five people in total were detained and tried. Despite the international outcry and numerous appeals, both writers remain behind bars.
The prosecution focused on the alleged conspiratorial dealings between the defendants and James Cason, the chief of the US Interests Section in Havana. Shortly before the crackdown, Cason had considerably stepped up his contacts with Cubans who had voiced opposition to Fidel Castro. All those detained were tried under Article 91 of the Penal Code and/or Law 88. Article 91 deals with charges of acting against ‘the independence and the territorial integrity of the state’, the maximum penalty for which is death. Law 88 is a catch-all piece of legislation that has been used as a means of sending writers and journalists to prison. It allows for prison sentences of up to twenty years for those found guilty of committing ‘acts that, in line with imperialist interests, are aimed at subverting the internal order of the Nation and destroying its political, economic, and social system’.
The one-day court hearings were held behind closed doors, with insufficient time for the accused to put together a cogent defence. Thirty-five-year-old Hernández González, director of the Colegio de Periodistas Independientes de Camagüey (Camagüey College of Independent Journalists) and a journalist with the Florida-based website CubaNet, was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.
According to Reporters Without Borders, the public prosecutor accused Hernández González of ‘virulent and feverish’ counter-revolutionary activity of a ‘socially very dangerous’ nature. He quoted from the journalist’s written contributions to the CubaNet website and his many reports for Radio Martí, the US backed radio station that transmits programmes to Cuba. The aim of all this activity, the prosecutor maintained, was ‘to create the necessary conditions for the armed intervention of a foreign power’.
In Cuba, prisoners of conscience are frequently locked up with common prisoners who are considered dangerous. According to personal accounts, conditions are very poor. They are allowed only minimal exercise, suffer appalling food, and are often denied specialist medical help. Many are forced to sleep on a concrete floor at the mercy of rodents and insects. Hernández González has repeatedly been punished for demanding recognition as a political prisoner, and has consequently spent months in solitary confinement. These ‘death cells’ are described as completely inhumane, with no windows, electric light or proper sanitation. It is no surprise to learn that Hernández González has also suffered various spells in hospital and is currently very ill.
On 5 June 2003 Hernández González was reported to be suffering from very high blood pressure, and two months later he began a hunger strike in protest at prison conditions. In January 2004 there were reports of undiagnosed heart problems, and that the writer had been assaulted by the prison’s Security Chief, Ramón Beúne. The prison authorities apparently denied both the attack and Hernández González’s illness. Around the same time, a fellow prisoner claimed in a letter that the prison authorities had made the journalist share with dangerous or mentally disturbed prisoners, and that he was now in a 2m by 2m cell.
Hernández González himself reported in February 2004 that he was held in appalling conditions and that his wife, Yaraí Reyes Marín, had been stripped naked and interrogated by the prison authorities before being allowed to visit him. On 7 May 2004 he was transferred to Block 8, a section housing common criminals, and beaten by prison guards for shouting anti-Castro slogans. On the same day, the writer apparently staged another hunger strike in protest at the move, and was later sent to a punishment cell. Eventually he gave up his hunger strike, after presumably coming to some agreement with the prison authorities.
On 15 September, Hernández González was transferred to a different cell-block containing common criminals. Later in the month he was briefly hospitalised. On 22 November 2004 the prison authorities apparently informed his wife that the journalist was suffering from chronic diarrhoea, and had lost a considerable amount of weight. Reyes Marín reported in February 2005 that her husband had been moved to the Abel Santamaría Hospital in Pinar del Río suffering from a number of abdominal complaints. In April 2005, Hernández González finally underwent treatment for tuberculosis and a gastric illness.
It is believed that the writer contracted tuberculosis from his fellow inmates when sharing a cell. In June last year, Reyes Marín told Reporters Without Borders that her husband was extremely weak and suffering from compression of the vertebrae, which prevented him from moving his head. The treatment that the doctors had given him for his bone pain, combined with the treatment for his tuberculosis, had inflamed his stomach, causing chronic diarrhoea.
In spite of being critically ill, on 28 July 2005 Hernández González was transferred from hospital back to his cell at the Kilo 5½ Prison.
Out of the thirty-five detained in April 2003, twenty-six writers, journalists and librarians remain in prison. Since April 2004, a number of those sentenced have been conditionally released, seemingly for health reasons, so it is worth keeping up the pressure on the Cuban authorities to release prisoners of conscience on humanitarian grounds.
Readers can send appeals urging the Cuban authorities to release Normando Hernández González and his fellow writers sentenced in the 2003 clampdown to:
His Excellency Fidel Castro Ruz
President of Cuba
c/o Cuban Mission to the United Nations
New York, NY, USA
Fax: 001 212 779 1697