Writers cry for freedom

Cuba has more journalists locked up than any other country in the world, other than China

A jailed Cuban journalist whose health is rapidly deteriorating in the face of prison-contracted diseases has been chosen as one of four writers to mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer on 15 November. The special day, held on the same date each year, is organised by PEN, the writers' organisation that backs persecuted authors around the world.

Normando Hernández González was imprisoned in 2003 for reports and broadcasts on the internet and Radio Martí that were said by the government to endanger security. Hernández was found guilty of spying and threatening national security, crimes that carry a 25-year jail term. He was one of 75 journalists arrested in the Cuban government crackdown on the press in 2003 and, according to PEN, remains one of 59 still held by the regime.

He was thrown a glimmer of hope a few months ago when the government of Costa Rica effectively granted him asylum in absentia, launching a plea for his release after reports of a downward turn in his condition.

The move came about after Hernández's mother, Bianca González, appealed to Costa Rican legislators to intervene.

José Manuel Echandi, a former Defender of the Citizens in Costa Rica, answered the call and accused Cuba of torture in blocking the journalist's release.

The Cuban journalist's illness has been partly brought about by a hunger strike he began six months ago, but he has also contracted tuberculosis in prison. Hernández has spent most of the past 12 months in a maximum security prison, but was recently moved to a hospital for treatment.

At Echandi's request, Costa Rica asked Cuba to free Hernández and allow him to be transferred across the Caribbean Sea for health care attention in that country. When they received no response, Echandi wrote to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, to seek help to speed his release.

Press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders is also backing the request that Hernández should be transported to Costa Rica.

"Humanitarian concerns are clearly paramount as regards all prisoners of conscience," the organisation said.

Cuba has more journalists locked up than any other country in the world, apart from China. Those still held since March 2003 are serving sentences ranging from 14 to 27 years.

According to Reporters Without Borders, three journalists held in Cuba were arrested after Fidel Castro's brother Raú took over the running of the country last year.