Freed dissidents say disease rampant at Cuban jails

15th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Cuban dissidents recently released by Havana said Thursday disease was rampant in the damp, crowded and rat-infested prisons where they were held.

"The hygiene and health situation was not bad, it was worse than bad," Julio Cesar Galvez told reporters in Madrid, two days after arriving in Spain with six other dissidents.

"We lived with rats, cockroaches, scorpions and excrement. There were outbreaks of dengue fever, or tuberculosis," he added.

Galvez was among a first batch of 52 dissidents authorized to leave the country in the biggest release of political prisoners by Cuba in over a decade.

The 65-year-old, who was serving a 15-year sentence for secretly working for US media outlets such as the Voice of America, said not enough drinking water was provided for the prisoners and food often came mixed with dirt.

"The soup was called giraffe's soup because you had to crane your neck to see what was inside it," he said.

Galvez said up to 40 prisoners at the Villa Clara prison where he was serving his sentence were packed into cells measuring a few square metres.

There was just one tank with 50 gallons (190 litres) of water that was replenished only once a day.

Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso, another one of the dissidents who arrived Tuesday, said political prisoners were placed in jails hundreds of kilometres (miles) from their hometowns so as to separate them from their families.

The constant damp in the jails had affected many of them, the 60-year-old said. "Many people became physically sick."

Alfonso was serving a 20-year prison term for secretly working for the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

The seven dissidents who arrived on Tuesday were accompanied by 33 close family members. Four more dissidents arrived on Wednesday and Thursday along with 25 family members.

Normando Hernandez, one of the two dissidents who arrived on Wednesday, said some prisoners because so desperate over their living conditions that they would hurt themselves to seek medical care or to pressure the authorities into meeting their demands.

He said he saw one prisoner set himself on fire while others injected urine or oil into their own eyes.

"The self-mutilations were abysmal," said Herandez, a journalist who was sentenced to 25 years.

The dissidents and their families have been put up at a budget motel at a Madrid suburb since their arrival which Hernandez said was was noisy and crowded.

"I have an illness which forced me to go to the bathroom several times a day and the bathroom is shared which makes it difficult," he said.

"We can hear the noise from the hall in the room that we have, I do not feel I have the privacy that I would like to be with my daughter and my wife after seven years."

Cuba announced on July 7 that it had reached a deal with the Roman Catholic Church to gradually free 52 detainees. The deal came after dissident hunger striker Guillermo Farinas nearly starved to death.

Havana wants to avoid a repeat of the death in detention of political prisoner Orlando Zapata on February 23 as it seeks closer international ties to improve its economic situation.

Spain, the former colonial power in Cuba and the largest foreign investor in the country, helped broker the deal between the Cuban government and the Church.

Madrid has said it is willing to receive all the freed detainees, who were sentenced in 2003 to prison terms of between six and 28 years.

© 2010 AFP

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