Thirty-two writers, journalists, and librarians were sentenced during one-day trials held in early April 2003 under laws governing the protection of the Cuban state. They were arrested as part of a crackdown on alleged dissidents that began on March 18, 2003, during which around 80 people were detained. The one-day court hearings were held behind closed doors and it is reported that there was insufficient time for the accused to put together a cogent defense. The accusations focused on the alleged conspiratorial dealings between the defendants and James Cason, the chief of the US Special Interests Section in Havana.

As far as can be established, the majority were tried under Article 91 of the Penal Code and Law 88. Article 91 deals with charges of acting against “the independence of 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 in the past as a means for 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.” It is reported that all those sentenced lodged appeals with the Tribunal Supremo Popular (Supreme Popular Tribunal) in April 2003.

Many of the journalists featured in this campaign have had dealings with the US Interests Section in Havana, although it would appear that this mainly consisted of using the Section’s internet connection to send their journalistic reports to various publications and websites outside Cuba. However, the Cuban State has a long history of harassing independent journalists, arresting and interrogating them, confiscating their equipment, and sending them to prison for no other reason than for what they have written. Therefore, to suppose that the journalists sentenced in April last year have been sent down because of what they have written rather than for any alleged conspiratorial offences does not require a great leap of faith. Furthermore, the nature of their trials (secret summary trials in which the accused were prohibited from consulting their lawyers) casts serious doubt on the validity of the accusations. For the reasons above, it does not seem at all unfair to conclude that the real crime the journalists committed was to write articles with which the Cuban government disagreed or at which they took offense. This, of course, is a gross violation of Article 19 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Finally, the crackdown on the so-called counter-revolutionaries (the Castro regime never calls them ‘dissidents’), far from being good for Cuba, as the Cuban government contends, is actually harmful. Aside from the gross violations of human rights they are carrying out and the distress they are causing both to the prisoners and their families, the current government is also losing a great deal of the good will it had from the international community. Many people sympathetic to Castro feel rightly that just because Cuba feels itself oppressed by a more powerful neighbour, that does not give it an excuse to use oppressive tactics on its own people.

Of the 75 dissidents sentenced in April 2003 to a total of 1500 years in prison, 35 were journalists, writers or librarians. To date, only three of these – Manuel Vázquez Portal, Julio Antonio Valdés and Carmelo Agustín Díaz Fernández – have been released, and even their releases have been conditional and amount to a type of house arrest.

The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has formally adopted all the cases of those sentenced in the March 2003 clampdown.


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