CUBA: Two journalists jailed, one writer sentenced to five years in prison

RAN 09/13 – 22 February 2013

CUBA: Two journalists jailed, one writer sentenced to five years in prison

The Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of PEN International protests a renewed wave of repression and harassment against journalists and writers in Cuba, including the imprisonment of two journalists and the conviction of a writer. Independent journalist Calixto Ramón Martínez Arias has been detained pending trial since September 2012 on charges of “disrespect” against the head of state, while state journalist José Antonio Torres is reportedly serving a 14-year sentence for espionage; both were jailed after reporting on sensitive subjects. Writer and blogger Ángel Santiesteban Prats has been sentenced to five years in prison for alleged trespassing and assault on the basis of an apparently flawed trial. The WiPC calls for Martínez Arias’ immediate and unconditional release. It also calls on the Cuban authorities to provide assurances that Torres’ and Santiesteban’s sentences are not related to their reporting, and to make public details of their trials.

Calixto Ramón Martínez Arias, journalist for the independent news agency Hablemos Press, was arrested by the Cuban Revolutionary Police at José Martí International airport on 16 September 2012. He had been investigating allegations that medicine provided by the World Health Organisation to fight the cholera outbreak, which began in mid-2012, was being kept at the airport instead of being distributed, as the Cuban government was trying to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak. He was taken to a police station near the airport where he was put in a cell. When he complained about his detention, he was allegedly beaten and pepper-sprayed in the eyes and called out “Down with Raúl, down with Fidel” (“Abajo Raúl, abajo Fidel”). He was held at the police station for 10 days before being transferred to Valle Grande prison until 10 November 2012, when he was transferred to Combinado del Este prison, where he remains.

Although Martínez Arias has not been informed of any official charges against him, he is reportedly being accused of “disrespect” (desacato) towards President Raúl Castro and former president Fidel Castro, which carries a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment. His lawyer has not been allowed access to his case file.

There are concerns for Martínez Arias’ welfare in prison. In September 2012 he was reportedly transferred to hospital for treatment for blows received to the left eye. In November-December 2012, he carried out a 33-day hunger strike in protest against at prison conditions. On 12 December 2012 he was placed in solitary confinement after calling Hablemos Press and informing them of the poor conditions inside the prison, in defiance of an order by prison authorities forbidding him to use the telephone. In early January 2013 Martínez Arias reported that he was running a fever but had been denied medical attention.

Prior to his detention, Martínez Arias was arrested several times in May and June 2012. Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for his peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression.

Also imprisoned is José Antonio Torres, former correspondent for the government newspaper Granma. Torres 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. Torres’ 5,000-word article on the mismanagement of the aqueduct project, published in July 2010, was reportedly praised by President Raúl Castro, who wrote in Granma that “this is the spirit that should characterise the (Communist) Party press: transparent, critical and self-critical.” His report on the fibre-optic cable was published four months later. Torres noted in neutral terms that the Vice President Ramiro Valdés was responsible for supervising both projects.

Three months later Torres was arrested and in mid-June 2012, following a closed trial, he was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 14 years in prison and the withdrawal of his university degree in journalism. He has reportedly appealed against his conviction, but fears that his sentence could be increased as a result. Cuba’s state-run media has made only a few brief references to Torres’ case and little is known about the espionage charge, although there are rumours that he may have offered or given confidential information to the US diplomatic mission in Havana.

Meanwhile, Ángel Santiesteban Prats, award-winning writer and author of the blog ‘The Children Who Nobody Loved’ (‘Los Hijos que Nadie Quiso’), is awaiting imprisonment after being sentenced to five years in prison for alleged assault and trespassing. The case dates back to 2009, when a number of charges were filed against him, including charges of a hit and run and aggravated robbery. He was eventually found guilty of having broken into his ex-wife’s house and physically assaulted her; all of the other charges were dropped. His sentence was handed down on 8 December 2012 and confirmed on appeal by the Supreme Court on 28 January.

Santiesteban maintains that the charges are fabricated and politically motivated, retribution for his blog which is critical of the Cuban situation and government. He also claims that he was informed of what the outcome of the trial would be on 8 November 2012, one month before the sentencing took place, when he was arrested along with 15 others following the detention of lawyer Yaremis Flores Julián, and then beaten.

Details of the case against Santiesteban have not been made public in state media. However, according to the appeal lodged by his lawyer, there were a number of irregularities in the trial and sentencing. The plaintiff is said to have changed her statement four times and overall her testimony was inconsistent with the crimes of which Santiesteban was eventually found guilty. A supposed eyewitness for the plaintiff allegedly later confessed in a home video that he had been pressured and bribed by the plaintiff to lie, but this was reportedly discarded by the court. A number of important witnesses in Santiesteban’s defence are said to have been overlooked, including three individuals who testified that he was not at the scene at the time that the crimes are alleged to have taken place, and the headmistress at his son’s school, who stated that the boy had confessed to her that his mother had forced him to make statements incriminating his father. The two-year sentence for trespassing is reportedly a year above the maximum one year penalty for such an offence.

Sanitesteban is a member of the official Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba – UNEAC). He has won a number of awards, including the Juan Rudolfo Prize from Radio France International (1989), National Prize from UNEAC (1995), Cesar Galeano award (1999), Alejo Carpentier Prize from the Cuban Book Institute for his short story collection Los hijos que nadie quiso (2001) and the Casa de las Américas Prize for his book Dichosos los que lloran (2006).

Please send appeals:

  • Protesting the imprisonment of Hablemos Press journalist 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;
  • Calling for Martínez Arias to be released immediately and unconditionally;
  • Expressing concern that the trials of former Granma correspondent José Antonio Torres and writer and blogger Ángel Santiesteban Prats apparently failed to meet international human rights standards for fair trials, outlined in Article 14 of the ICCPR;
  • Calling on the Cuban authorities to provide assurances that Torres’ and Santiesteban’s sentences are not related to their reporting, and to make public details of their trials;
  • Urging the Cuban authorities to remove unlawful restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly in Cuba.

Appeals to:

Head of State and Government

Raúl Castro Ruz

Presidente de la República de Cuba

La Habana, Cuba

Fax: +41 22 758 9431 (Cuba office in Geneva);

+1 212 779 1697 (via Cuban Mission to UN)

Email: cuba [at] un [dot] int (c/o Cuban Mission to UN)

Salutation: Your Excellency

Attorney General

Dr. Darío Delgado Cura

Fiscal General de la República

Fiscalía General de la República

Amistad 552, e/Monte y Estrella, Centro Habana, La Habana, Cuba

Salutation: Dear Attorney General

Interior Minister

General Abelardo Coloma Ibarra

Ministro del Interior y Prisiones

Ministerio del Interior, Plaza de la Revolución, La Habana, Cuba

Fax: +1 212 779 1697 (via Cuban Mission to UN)

Email: correominint [at] [dot] cu

Salutation: Your Excellency

Please send also appeals to diplomatic representatives of Cuba in your country.

***Please send appeals immediately. Check with the WiPC if sending appeals after 20 April 2013***

For further details contact Tamsin Mitchell at the Writers in Prison Committee London Office: PEN International, Brownlow House, 50/51 High Holborn, London WC1V 6ER UK, United Kingdom Tel: + 44 (0) 20 7405 0338  Fax: + 44 (0) 20 7405 0339  e-mail: tamsin.mitchell [at] pen-international [dot] org