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Journalist in Combinado del Sur prison on hunger strike; RSF alarmed at deteriorating health of several others

(RSF/IFEX) - RSF has reiterated its call for the release of 24 detained Cuban journalists as the population prepared to vote for - but not choose, as there is no choice - its representatives in national and provincial assembly elections to be held on 20 January 2008.

In a 16 January news conference in Madrid, the press freedom organisation voiced concern about the especially alarming situation of some of the journalists held since the "Black Spring" crackdown of 18 March 2003. One of the victims of that crackdown who is now an exile in Spain, Cuba Press agency founder Raúl Rivero, described the current plight of four of these journalists who are seriously ill.

The four are Normando Hernández González, the director of the Colegio de Periodistas Independientes de Camagüey (CPIC) (see alerts of 19 November, 3 July, 3 May and 16 March 2007, and others), José Luis García Paneque, the director of Libertad, a small independent news agency, and Adolfo Fernández Sainz and Iván Hernández Carrillo of Patria, another independent news agency.

"The state of health of these four journalists, as indeed the situation of all the dissident journalists jailed in Cuba, justifies at the very least the suspension of their sentences and their release on humanitarian grounds," RSF said. "If the government agreed to this, it would show a minimal respect for human rights, in which there has been no progress since Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother in July 2006."

The organisation added: "The 20 January elections should not raise any hopes. Political pluralism is not on the agenda and the only candidates that Cubans will be able to vote for are the already-designated 614 representatives of the Communist Party of Cuba, the only political party that is permitted."

At the 16 January press conference, Rivero described the mistreatment, solitary confinement punishments and lack of medical care that Cuban detainees have to endure. He said García Paneque, who is serving a 24-year sentence in Las Tunas prison, in the east of the country, has suffered a shocking deterioration in his health as a result of his poor intestinal absorption, for which he is getting no appropriate food or medicine.

Hernández Carrillo is being denied all contact with his family and staged several hunger strikes in 2007 that have weakened his health. Fernández and Hernández González have serious digestive and respiratory problems but the authorities refuse to reduce their sentences. Fernández is serving a 15-year sentence, while Hernández Carrillo and Hernández González are serving 25-year sentences. The Cuban authorities never replied to Costa Rica's offer to give Hernández González humanitarian asylum.

A total of 20 journalists, including Ricardo González Alfonso, the Cuba correspondent of RSF and founder of the dissident magazine "De Cuba" (see alerts of 16 March 2007 and 9 August 2006), have been held without interruption since 2003, serving jail terms ranging from 14 to 27 years that were imposed on the absurd grounds that they were "mercenaries in the pay of the United States."

Since Raúl Castro took over as acting president, three dissident journalists have been sentenced to terms ranging from three to four years in prison for being a "pre-criminal social danger." Oscar Sánchez Madán, a regular correspondent of the Miami-based Cubanet website, who has been held since 13 April 2007 in Combinado del Sur prison (in Havana province), went on hunger strike on 9 January 2008.

According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which is illegal but tolerated, Cuba's prisons currently hold a total of 234 prisoners of conscience.

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