Five months after his arrest, Cuban journalist Calixto Ramón Martínez Arias remains in jail on charges of insulting the country’s top leaders, with no trial date in sight.
At the end of January, the international human rights watchdog Amnesty International declared Martínez Arias a prisoner of conscience, arguing that the real reason for his detention was because he had reported on controversial subjects.
A reporter for the independent news agency Hablemos Press Information Centre, Martínez Arias was detained on September 16 while investigating a story about a damaged shipment of medicines that had been sent to Havana’s international airport by the World Health Organisation.
The Cuban prosecution service has accused him of an offence known as “disrespect”, alleging that he insulted Raúl and Fidel Castro, the country’s present and past presidents.
The authorities regularly detain journalists for short periods of up to two weeks.
Martínez Arias is one of two Cuban journalists who have been detained for much longer. The other is José Antonio Torres, a former correspondent for the official newspaper Granma who was detained in 2011 and given a 14-year sentence in June 2012. He was convicted of espionage, although his real offence seems to have been writing highly critical pieces about a construction project in the eastern Santiago de Cuba region.
Martínez Arias, 41, was born in the Campechuela municipality of the eastern province of Granma. After leaving school, he initially worked as a carpenter, but after joining the Cuban Pro-Human Rights Party, he decided to become a journalist in 2009.
Interviewed a month before his arrest in September, he said he chose this career “because I knew there was a possibility of creating a free press for the good of the people; and secondly because I always knew it was necessary to inform the world about the reality of Cuba”.
Martínez Arias wrote for Hablemos Press, which reports on human rights violations in Cuba, and was one of the first journalists to cover last year’s outbreak of cholera in eastern Cuba.
While detained at the Combinado del Este prison, he went on hunger strike on November 10 and demanded to be allowed to wear normal clothes as he regarded himself as a political prisoner, not a criminal.
In a phone call in which he told Hablemos Press director Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez of his decision, Martínez Arias urged international human rights organisations to visit the prison, which he said was not fit for human habitation.
“There are 36 prisoners living in a space 13 or 14 metres by six metres. The day I arrived, I had to sleep on the floor due to the number of inmates,” he said.
He was punished for his hunger strike by being placed in a solitary confinement cell known as the “corridor of death”, but only abandoned his protest 33 days later because relatives begged him to.
While Martínez Arias was on hunger strike, the Inter-American Press Association, a regional media freedom group, called for his release and condemned the charge of “disrespect” brought against him. The Cuban Association for Press Freedom urged the authorities to heed his demands since he was prepared to put his life at risk to make them.
No trial date has been set, and the journalist’s lawyer Joaquín Hernando has not been granted access to the prosecution’s case files.
The international group Reporters Without Borders describes Cuba as “the only country in the Americas not to allow any independent press to operate outside the straight-jacket of the state.” The Committee to Protect Journalists, meanwhile, ranks Cuba ninth on its list of countries with the most censorship in 2012. It is the only country in the Americas on the list.