Summary and Current Status
José Luis García Paneque is a medical doctor and president of the chapter of the unofficial Cuban Independent Medical Association (Colegio Médico Independiente de Cuba) in his home city of Las Tunas. On March 18, 2003, his home was searched by state security agents, and he was arrested. Dr. García was brought to trial on April 4, 2003, and was subsequently sentenced to 24 years in prison. He was one of 75 Cubans who were arrested and summarily tried as part of a massive crackdown by the Cuban government. On July 13, 2010, after serving more than 7 years of his 24-year sentence, Dr. García was released from prison and flown to Spain, together with six other Cuban prisoners of conscience and their families. Following private discussions between Cuban President Raúl Castro and leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino and Archbishop Dionisio García Ibáñez, President Castro agreed to release 52 political prisoners who have been in jail since 2003, when 75 dissidents were arrested in a widespread crackdown and sentenced to imprisonment of between 6 and 28 years. Dr. García was on the first plane to Spain. (The remaining 45 prisoners reportedly will be released over the next few months.)
Amnesty International considered all of the 75 individuals, including Dr. García, to be prisoners of conscience. Dr. García’s health deteriorated significantly during his seven-year incarceration.
Dr. García graduated from University of Camagüey’s medical school in 1989 with a specialty in traumatology and plastic surgery. He reportedly was expelled from his post at the burn unit of ‘Ernesto Che Guevara’ Hospital in Las Tunas province in 1997 because of his dissident political activism. Dr. García is married with four school-age children.
In 1998, Dr. García joined the independent press agency Liberty (Libertad) in Las Tunas. He was named its director in 2001. He wrote numerous articles on a wide range of topics, including retaliatory government measures taken against doctors who have sought to leave the country, an incident involving the poisoning of women prisoners, and the eviction of an evangelical pastor from his home. Since state-controlled media outlets in Cuba would not publish his writings that were critical of government policies and actions, Dr. García sent many of them abroad to be posted on the U.S.-based Cubanet website.
Dr. García served as director of the ‘Manuel Marquez Sterling’ Journalists’ Society (Sociedad de Periodistas). Named after the Cuban journalist and writer Manuel Marquez Sterling, the 55-member Society is not officially recognized by Cuban authorities. Founded in 2001, it has provided journalism classes to independent journalists and has published an independent magazine, De Cuba. In July 2003, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism awarded the Society with a Cabot Special Citation “for an unprecedented demonstration of courage and professionalism at enormous personal cost.”
Dr. García was also president of the Las Tunas chapter of the unofficial Cuban Independent Medical Association (Colegio Médico Independiente de Cuba). Reliable sources indicate that, in this capacity, Dr. García distributed medicine out of his home and gave advice on the use of specific drugs. The Cuban Independent Medical Association, created in November 2001, is still awaiting legal registration by the Cuban government.
Additionally, Dr. García was the director of the ‘Carlos J. Finlay’ Library. Located in his home, this private lending library contained more than 1,000 volumes on political, religious and medical subjects. The library was part of a network of independent libraries in Cuba that seeks to make books and other printed materials available to the citizenry.
Arrest and Trial
According to reliable reports, state security agents detained Dr. García for several hours on at least five different occasions, before arresting him at his home in Las Tunas on March 18, 2003. At the time of his arrest, agents searched Dr. García’s house and confiscated a number of items: among them an electric typewriter; 44 copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; children’s books; 89 magazines on religious, political, and cultural topics; 25 library check-out cards; a letter to dissident Gladys Linares from a mother requesting a wheel chair for a boy named Reynaldo Figueredo and a record of its delivery by Dr. García; correspondence; receipts for medicine sent from the United States and Puerto Rico; a 16-page list of people who have received medicine; 54 bottles of vitamin supplements; various types of medicine; radios; a fax machine; a glucometer; and assorted business cards. Given that 11 of the 75 dissidents arrested during the government crackdown in March-April 2003 were independent librarians (including Dr. García), it would appear that such individuals were particularly targeted by the Cuban authorities.
On March 31, 2003, the prosecution presented its indictment of Dr. García, which contained “provisional conclusions.” In it the prosecution charged Dr. García under ‘Law 88 for the Protection of the National Independence and Economy of Cuba’ for “acts that in agreement with imperialists interests are aimed at subverting the internal order of the nation and destroying its political, economic and social system” and under Article 91 of the Cuban Penal Code for “acts with the objective of damaging the independent or territorial integrity of the Cuban State.”
Dr. García and four co-defendants were brought to trial on April 4, 2003, before the People’s Provincial Court of Las Tunas. That same day he was convicted and sentenced to 24 years in prison, although the prosecution had requested a lesser sentence of 20 years.
The legal proceedings against Dr. García failed to meet international fair trial standards in a number of ways. Summary procedures were used in his trial, which reportedly lasted only eleven hours, from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. His family was not officially informed of the trial date and only learned of it indirectly from witnesses called by the prosecution. As a result, his family did not arrive at the “Soila Marinero” Theater of the University of Las Tunas where the trial was taking place until about 11 a.m., and only his wife, parents, sister, and brother-in-law were permitted to enter. His wife, Yamilé Llánez Labrada, has stated that she was initially barred from entering, but reportedly gained entrance after insisting that she needed to give Dr. García’s lawyer evidence to use in the course of the trial. The trial was not public, and no diplomats or journalists were permitted to attend.
According to reliable reports, Dr. García was not given adequate access to his lawyer before the trial. Dr. García’s lawyer did not have access to his client’s extensive 520-page case file until the day before the trial, and then he was allowed to study its contents for only three hours. As a result, the lawyer reportedly was unable to read the entire file. He was only permitted to meet and speak with Dr. García once before the trial, prior to his examination of the file. It would appear that Dr. García’s lawyer feared retaliation from the Cuban government for representing his client because during the trial he made a point of stating that he did not share Dr. García’s views. Furthermore, the Cuban government announced the detention of Dr. García and the other 75 dissidents on national television and—before they had been brought to trial and given the opportunity to defend themselves—accused them of being linked to “acts of conspiracy” through contact with the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, thereby depriving them of their fundamental right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty in a public trial, as promulgated by Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The court document prepared by the Provincial Prosecutor of Las Tunas for this case listed 11 individuals who were summoned to testify against Dr. García. Witnesses included some of Dr. García’s neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances who had been secretly providing information to the Cuban government about his activities. Dr. García reportedly has always been completely open and public about his activities.
Dr. García’s case was submitted to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. On May 9, 2003, the Working Group issued its opinion, declaring his imprisonment to be arbitrary in contravention of Articles 19, 20, and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Conditions of confinement and prison transfers
Following his conviction, Dr. García was transferred to “El Típico” Provincial Prison in Las Tunas in his home city. On May 17, 2003, after he and four other prisoners of conscience protested the quality of prison food and refused to eat a meal of spoiled fish, he was transferred to “Guamajal” Prison in Villa Clara, some 500 kilometers from his home. When his wife visited him there on August 12, 2003, he reportedly told her that his hands and feet were tied during the approximately seven-hour drive from one prison to the other.
On August 20, 2003, Dr. García was transferred again, this time to the ‘Provincial Prison for Young People of Villa Clara.’ After a visit with her husband the next day, Ms. Llánez reported that he had lost 30 pounds, was extremely depressed, and was receiving psychiatric medication for anxiety and insomnia. Another close relative, Jorge Labrada, later told the press that, “When I visited him it seemed to me that I was seeing another José Luis, not the one that I had always known . . . . His mental health is also quite affected.”
Despite his declining mental health, during the four months that Dr. García was held at the ‘Provincial Prison for Young People of Villa Clara,’ prison authorities allowed him to have very limited human contact. Aside from one two-week period during which a common prisoner reportedly shared the cell with Dr. García, he was held in solitary confinement in an “isolation cell.” He reportedly was permitted to speak by telephone with his wife only once a month.
On October 1, 2003, a prisoner in an adjoining cell wrote a note that was subsequently smuggled out of the prison reporting that “García Paneque is going through a nervous breakdown since he was imprisoned this past March 18 in La[s] Tunas. His psychiatric state is deplorable, given that he hits himself in the face, bangs his head against the wall, cries constantly and yells desperately.” During this period, Dr. García also reportedly said that he wanted to die and, at times, refused sustenance (although he did not declare a hunger strike).
On December 17, 2003, Dr. García was transferred, on an emergency basis, to the prison infirmary and was held there for almost a year. On December 1, 2004, he was taken to “Carlos J. Finlay” Military Hospital in Havana for a checkup. He was then transferred to the infirmary at the “Combinado del Este” Prison in Havana. He remained there until November 8, 2005, when he was transferred to the infirmary at “Las Mangas” Prison in Bayamo in the province of Granma. At this prison, he initially was subjected to the Phase 2 Maximum Severe (Regimen Máximo Segunda Fase) prison regimen which permits one family visit every 45 days.
In late 2006, after prison doctors determined that his health status was stable, Dr. García was transferred from the prison infirmary into a cell with more than a dozen common prisoners, where he remained until his release. Dr. García reportedly told his family that he had trouble sleeping at night because his cellmates played games and made loud noise. An incident that occurred on August 28, 2007, heightened the CHR’s concern for Dr. García’s physical safety. According to reports, on that day Dr. García was threatened by another prisoner during the afternoon count of inmates at the prison. Later, during the evening count, the same prisoner reportedly punched Dr. García so hard that he fell to the ground. Reports indicate that Dr. García was taken to the ward for prisoners at the ‘Carlos Manuel de Céspedes’ Hospital in Bayamo, where four stitches were required to close a wound over his left eyebrow. Clearly, Dr. García’s conditions of confinement violated Article 8 of the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners which stipulates that: “The different categories of prisoners shall be kept in separate institutions or parts of institutions.”
On June 1, 2010, following private conversations between Cuban President Raúl Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega of the Roman Catholic Church, Cuban authorities transferred Dr. García to a “work camp” located in his home city of Las Tunas, a significant improvement in his situation. This low-security facility is part of Cuba’s prison system.
Dr. García’s health deteriorated dramatically since his imprisonment. He suffered from multiple ailments, including anxiety, depression, bronchial asthma, colitis, and deficient intestinal absorption syndrome. The latter disorder—which does not allow his intestines to absorb gluten or lactose—is particularly serious because it caused him to suffer from intense pain, chronic diarrhea, rectal bleeding, and significant weight loss. Information provided by Amnesty International to the CHR indicated that Dr. García lost approximately 80 pounds, the equivalent of more than 40 percent of his total body weight. His wife expressed concern that Dr. García ran the risk of organ failure if his health continued to worsen.
The CHR was deeply concerned that there was no independent confirmation, from sources other than prison officials, that Dr. García was receiving adequate medical treatment for deficient intestinal absorption syndrome. (Patients with this disorder often require hospitalization and intensive treatment by gastroenterologists until they can gain back and maintain their body weight. They are generally prescribed a strict diet regime that includes an intake of protein at least three times a day.) In all likelihood, the diet of bland, boiled food reportedly provided to him in prison was insufficient to provide for his nutritional needs. Significantly, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requested that the Cuban government provide information on Dr. García’s health status and the medical attention being provided to him.
Dr. García’s wife argued that imprisonment is incompatible with appropriate medical treatment of deficient intestinal absorption syndrome. On December 9, 2005, she reportedly submitted a formal request to the Cuban Ministry of the Interior, asking that Dr. García be granted licencia extrapenal (a type of parole that permits inmates to serve out the rest of their sentences outside of prison for health reasons). We understand that she never received a response.
Harassment of family members
After Dr. García’s dissident activities became public in 2003, his family reportedly was subjected to acts of harassment. Shortly after Dr. García’s arrest, his wife, who is a lawyer, was visited by a state security official at her office and harassed. As a result, she lost her job after which she was unable to find work in her profession.
In mid-September 2005, neighbors informed Dr. García’s wife that her name had appeared on a list of citizens that the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR, Comité de Defensa de la Revolución) had publicly designated as “counter-revolutionaries” and “terrorists.” Following this revelation, Ms. Llánez expressed fear for her safety and that of her children because there have been multiple instances in the past in which members of the families of Cuban political prisoners have been the subject of acts of harassment or violence perpetrated by pro-government mobs following such allegations. Her fears were born out on August 3, 2006, when about 100 people reportedly converged outside of the family’s home and stayed there for more than four hours while she huddled inside with her four children and seven Catholic young people who were staying at her house on their way to the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Copper in Santiago de Cuba. The people outside allegedly were armed with sticks, stones, and umbrellas and shouted “Get out of here!”, “Assassins!”, and “Terrorists.”
In another incident, in early June 2006, Sheila García (Dr. García’s eldest daughter who was 15 years old at the time) reportedly was denied permission to study computer technology (informática) by Cuban authorities, despite her high grade point average. In addition, reports indicated that she was pressured to become a member of the Union of Communist Youth (UJC, Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas), even though she repeatedly said that she did not want to join.
In March 2007, Dr. García’s wife and children left Cuba and went into exile in the United States. As required under Cuban domestic law, the family requested and was granted permission to leave the country, but their house and its contents reportedly were turned over to the Cuban government. The U.S. government waived the normal application process and granted political asylum to these five members of Dr. García’s family.
In August 2008, Dr. García’s prison regimen was upgraded such that he was permitted to have more frequent contact—visits once a month—with family members who remain in Cuba. In addition, once a month prison authorities facilitated a seven-minute telephone call with his wife and children.