An independent journalist in Cuba, Calixto Ramón Martínez Árias, is to be charged with being disrespectful towards Raúl and Fidel Castro, the country’s current and former presidents.
Martínez Árias, a correspondent for the independent news agency Hablemos Press, was detained on September 16. If convicted, he could face a prison sentence of one to three years.
The authorities maintained silence on Martínez Árias’s detention for nearly 72 hours, until Captain Marisela of the Santiago de las Vegas police department in Havana province announced that the detainee was to be charged with “the crime of aggravated disrespect”.
In Cuban law, the criminal offence of “disrespect” is a broad term covering defamation or other insults towards government officials, and carries more severe penalties when the head of state or another top figure is involved.
The authorities have not yet said when and how they believe Martínez Árias insulted the Castro brothers.
The journalist was detained at Havana’s international airport while investigating a story about a damaged shipment of medicines sent by the World Health Organisation.
The law requires the police to allow communication with detained persons, but in this case access was not only obstructed, but a lawyer and editor were themselves temporarily detained when they made inquiries about Martínez Árias.
Hablemos Press director Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez went to the Santiago de las Vegas police station the day after Martínez Árias’s arrest to ask for information.
“The officer there told us that [Martínez Árias] had been transferred to another station, without giving any more details,” he said.
At one in the afternoon of September 19, Guerra Pérez returned to the police station, accompanied by independent lawyer Veizant Boloy, and they demanded to be informed of Martínez Árias’s legal situation.
Instead of being allowed to communicate with him, the two were detained.
“We asked Captain Marisela if we could see [Martínez Árias] and give him some toiletries. Then a State Security Department agent who called himself Yuri appeared, accompanied by a police officer,” Boloy said. “They asked for our identification and took us to the cells.”
Boloy and Guerra Pérez were held for seven hours, then released.
“Our detention and everything that happened at the station was authorised by Major Arnaldo Espinosa, head of the Santiago de las Vegas Station,” Boloy said, “although it is State Security officers who are really in charge.”
Their detention did allow them to confirm that, contrary to what Guerra Pérez had been told, Martínez Árias was being held at the same police station.
“When we went down to the cells we shouted Calixto’s name. He answered us, surprised. We saw wounds on his face caused by blows from officers,” Guerra Peréz said.
He added, “On the Monday [September 17], they lied to us. Calixto was always at that station.”
Guerra Peréz reported later that on September 20, Martínez Árias was treated for a swelling in his left eye at the National Hospital, and then transferred to the prison known as “El Vivac” in western Havana.
Prosecutors have yet to confirm when the detainee will be able to engage a lawyer. Only lawyers belonging to the National Organisation of Collective Law Offices are allowed to defend citizens in court cases.
The Inter-American Press Association has condemned Martínez Árias’s arrest.
“It is a contradiction that a journalist faces possible imprisonment for reporting on matters of public interest, when these matters should really be an alert [for the need] to fix the problem,” Gustavo Mohme, head of the association’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, said on September 21.
Martínez Árias has been detained on numerous occasions while working as a journalist, but this is the first time he has been charged with an offence.
In an interview at the end of August, he said his mission as an independent journalist was “to break down the wall of silence that the government has imposed on this island, and to report human rights abuses”.
Yaremis Flores is an independent lawyer and journalist in Cuba.