On Fourth Anniversary of Clampdown, Rights Group Calls for Release of Prisoners
On the fourth anniversary of a major crackdown on human rights activists in Cuba that saw dozens sentenced to long prison terms for peaceful promotion of basic rights and freedoms, Human Rights First, a New York-based advocacy group, has renewed its call for the release of the 59 prisoners who remain in jail, several of whom are seriously ill.
In the last weeks of March 2003, the Cuban government sentenced 75 peaceful human rights defenders and independent journalists to prison terms of up to 28 years in grossly unfair summary trials. The activists were charged with “disrespect” toward the Revolution, “treason,” and “giving information to the enemy,” in the harshest backlash against peaceful dissent that the island had seen in years.
“This was jailing people for no other reason than their peaceful advocacy of human rights,” said Neil Hicks, Director of the Human Rights Defenders Program at Human Rights First. “There is no legal or moral justification for their continued incarceration.”
Since 2003, Human Rights First’s supporters have sent thousands of appeals to the Cuban authorities calling for the release of the prisoners. Sixteen have so far been released on medical parole.
Several of those still in jail suffer from poor health and their conditions have been exacerbated by an unhygienic environment, substandard care and inadequate medical treatment. (Some of the prisoners most at risk are profiled below.
The family members of the prisoners who are campaigning for the release of their relatives are subject to continual harassment and persecution. The Ladies in White are the wives and relatives of those imprisoned in the 2003 crackdown. They have persistently and peacefully advocated their release since then. In recognition of their courageous work, Human Rights First honored the Ladies in White with its annual human rights award in 2006.
On this anniversary of injustice, Human Rights First renews its call to the Cuban government and, in particular, to interim leader Raul Castro, to immediately and unconditionally release the 59 individuals who remain in prison since their arrest in the spring of 2003. Here are profiles of four of the prisoners:
- Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet is a physician and president of the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights, which peacefully promotes human rights and the rule of law. In reprisal for his human rights activities, the 41-year-old Dr. Biscet was sentenced to 25 years in prison and has been held in some of the harshest conditions, including in punishment cells and solitary confinement. For long periods of time he is denied family visits, the right to leave his cell, and essential packages of medicine and food. Dr. Biscet suffers from chronic gastritis, hypertension and recurring infections, and is reportedly losing his eyesight; his poor health has been severely aggravated by unhygienic prison conditions and harsh treatment. At one point, Dr. Biscet was reported have lost more than 60 pounds.
- Normando Hernández González is an independent journalist sentenced to 25 years in prison in the spring of 2003 for his commentaries on Cuban society, including pieces on the Cuban health, educational and judicial systems, and for his promotion of free expression. Mr. Hernández was apparently held in a cell for more than a year with a prisoner known to have tuberculosis, despite repeated concerns expressed by him and his family. He was recently confirmed to have contracted tuberculosis and is suffering from high fevers, fatigue and fainting. The doctors at Prison Kilo 7 in Camagüey, where he is being held, are reportedly refusing him medical assistance. There have also been reports that he has been physically assaulted by prison guards.
- Dr. José Luis García Paneque was sentenced to 24 years in prison in 2003 for his work as an independent journalist, as well as for his involvement in a civic initiative to promote democratic reforms, known as the Varela Project. Dr. García Paneque’s health has dramatically worsened since his imprisonment; he suffers from intestinal problems that have caused him to lose almost 90 pounds and at one point left him emaciated at a weight of around 110 pounds. He also suffers from rectal bleeding, and has dangerously low blood pressure. Despite these symptoms, his wife reports that he is not receiving adequate medical care and her request for his release on medical parole in November 2005 has not been answered.
- Luis Enrique Ferrer García received a 28-year sentence for his work with the Varela Project, a civic initiative calling for democratic reforms in Cuba. To protest his unjust imprisonment, particularly harsh prison conditions and mistreatment by prison authorities, Mr. Ferrer García has engaged in numerous hunger strikes throughout his detention, often leaving him very ill and weak. In addition, he has been the victim of numerous physical assaults by security guards and violent prisoners, most of whom are encouraged by prison authorities to harass and intimidate him.