New York, New York, March 18, 2008—Five years after Cuba jailed 75 prominent dissidents in what has been called that country’s “Black Spring,” PEN American Center today appealed for the release of 28 imprisoned writers, journalists and librarians, saying Cuba’s decision to sign key human rights treaties last month should quickly be matched by tangible human rights improvements.

On March 18, 2003—the eve of the U.S.-led war against Iraq—the Cuban government rounded up writers, independent journalists, and human rights activists in a massive crackdown aimed at silencing the opposition. The 75 dissidents sentenced during one-day court hearings in April 2003 to a total of 1500 years in prison included 21 journalists, writers or librarians who are still in prison. These include PEN American Center Honorary Members Normando Hernández González, José Luis García Paneque and Léster González Pentón. Seven other  writers and journalists detained in the years since 2003 remain imprisoned as well.
On February 28, 2008, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Felipe Perez Roque, signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) at the United Nations (UN) in New York, making good on a promise he had made in December 2007. The two conventions, which expand on and codify the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are legally binding once ratified and commit the country to respect and promote a full spectrum of rights. These include the right to freedom of opinion and expression,  the right to earn a living by the profession of one’s choosing, the right to health, and freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment.
The signature of these conventions marks a significant change in Cuba’s attitude to the UN: for years the country had refused all calls to sign the treaties and to allow a visit by the now defunct Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cuba. The move followed hard on the heels of Fidel Castro’s resignation from office and the surprise release of two journalists and a librarian serving lengthy prison sentences in February 2008. On February 16, journalists Alejandro González Raga and José Gabriel Ramón Castillo and librarian Omar Pernet Hernández were freed and flown to Spain with their families. The three men were arrested and sentenced as part of the March 2003 crackdown.

“We applaud and welcome the signing of these two fundamental documents, which explicitly guarantee freedom of expression and prohibit torture and ill treatment in detention,” said Larry Siems, Director of Freedom to Write and International Programs at PEN American Center. “Now it is important for the Cuban government to move quickly to abide by the terms of these covenants. Normando Hernández González, José Luis García Paneque, Léster González Pentón, and our 25 other colleagues who are in prison in violation of these guarantees should be released and allowed to resume their professions immediately.”
Siems also urged the government to ratify the two treaties without reservations and to introduce all legislative and judicial reforms necessary for their implementation.

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660 ext. 105