Banned books and other forms of censorship

On the banning of books, censorship and other freedom of access issues

Sunday, June 15, 2008

ALA resolution on Cuba

Five years ago, in March 2003 the Cuban government launched one of its harshest crackdowns, arresting 75 dissidents and sentencing them to up to 25 years in jail after blatantly unfair political trials. Major human rights organizations such as Amnesty International strongly protested this event. Within the American Library Association, the trials were a matter of some controversy because some of those arrested and tried had been involved in a movement to establish independent libraries in the country.

Proponents of this movement felt the ALA was obliged to join with various human rights groups in demanding their immediate release. But some others, primarily activists who consider themselves progressive and belong to the Social Responsibilities Round Table, opposed any action on behalf of these prisoners of conscience.

The result was a compromise of sorts, in which the ALA went on record as expressing "its deep concern over the arrest and long prison terms of political dissidents in Cuba in spring 2003 and urges the Cuban Government to respect, defend and promote the basic human rights defined in Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights." It also joined with the International Federation of Library Associations in calling "for an investigative visit by a special rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights with special attention given to freedom of access to information and freedom of expression, especially in the cases of those individuals recently imprisoned and that the reasons for and conditions of their detention be fully investigated." In addition the 2003 ALA resolution/report urged the U.S. to end its embargo on Cuba and other hostile policies.

Now, five years later, should the ALA issue any kind of statement of concern regarding the same situation? Normally, when an organization expresses its deep concern over unfair trials and harsh prison sentences handed out to dissidents, it doesn't then drop the issue completely and never bring it up again. To do so would be hypocritical because such inaction would indicate the organization doesn't care at all about these prisoners. But such inaction is exactly what the so-called progressives within the ALA have urged in opposing a new resolution submitted to the ALA council which demands the immediate release of the remaining prisoners of conscience from this 2003 crackdown.

In contrast, Amnesty International issued last March its commentary on the 2003 crackdown, in which it said:

"On the 5th anniversary of the largest crackdown against political opponents in Cuba, Amnesty International today called on the new Cuban president to immediately release the 58 dissidents still being held in jails across the country, many for contacting journalists and human rights defenders.

"'The only crime committed by these 58 is the peaceful exercise of their fundamental freedoms. Amnesty International considers them to be prisoners of conscience. They must be released immediately and unconditionally,' said Kerrie Howard, deputy director for Amnesty International's Americas program...

"..Fifty-five of the 58 current prisoners of conscience in Cuba are the remainder of a group of 75 people jailed during a massive crackdown against the dissident movement in March 2003.

"Most were accused of 'acts against the independence of the state,' charged with publishing articles or giving interviews to U.S.-funded media, communicating with international human rights organizations and having contact with groups or individuals considered hostile to Cuba. The men were sentenced to between six and 28 years behind bars after what were considered dubious trials. So far, 20 have been released on medical grounds.."

Those who oppose the independent library movement in Cuba saw the failure of the ALA to take a less equivocal stand against the 2003 crackdown as a victory for their side, that is by the ALA not calling for the release of these prisoners but only expressing its deep concern over the trials and imprisonment of these individuals. That in itself is a sad commentary on a rather authoritarian, pro-dictator mindset among some ALA members; but the fact remains that there is nothing inconsistent with the ALA expressing its concern over this crackdown and then calling for the release of these prisoners. One is a logical extension of the other. At the very least, the ALA should inquire over the remaining prisoners, especially those affiliated with the independent library movement; and ask why a UN special rapporteur has not been allowed to visit the country to investigate the situation of these prisoners.