IN HIS many videos on social media. José Daniel Ferrer appears as a robust and determined activist for democracy in Cuba, heading a group named the Patriotic Union of Cuba, or UNPACU. But in a short prison visit on Thursday, more than a month after Mr. Ferrer was detained Oct. 1 by authorities, his family says they saw a broken man, hunched over, having lost half his weight, covered in bruises. He was barely able to speak but told them hastily he has been threatened that he will not leave prison alive.

This horrific scene is cause for alarm, outrage and international protest. Mr. Ferrer is a leading opposition voice to the Cuban regime. He previously served several years in prison after the 2003 Black Spring” arrests of the followers of Oswaldo Payá, champion of the Varela Project, a citizen initiative calling for a referendum on democracy in Cuba. Mr. Ferrer founded UNPACU in his hometown of Santiago de Cuba after his release, and he has been tireless and unrelenting in his pursuit of human rights and in his criticism of the authoritarian regime established by Fidel Castro six decades ago.

After his arrest, along with several others in his movement, Mr. Ferrer was held incommunicado, with no word about his situation. Then, in the past week, a handwritten letter appeared in which he wrote that he had been beaten and tortured and his life was in grave danger. In a statement Thursday, Mr. Ferrer’s family said he confirmed that he had written the letter and had it smuggled out.

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In the brief meeting with his family, conducted in a prison office, Mr. Ferrer said he is on a hunger strike and has repeatedly torn off his prison uniforms in protest, which were forcibly put back on him. He showed his family bruises on his body. He was hunched over and could barely embrace them. Mr. Ferrer reported that he is being held in a cell in chains with a common criminal who has attacked him repeatedly.

No one should have any doubts why Mr. Ferrer is being punished: to silence his outspoken demands for an end to despotism in Cuba, a system that is now run by Fidel’s brother Raúl, from the shadows, and President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Mr. Ferrer’s family quoted him as saying he is now ready to die for his principles, telling them, “Freedom, dignity or death.” He must be released and given medical treatment immediately — and his ideals must not be allowed to flicker out in a dank prison cell.

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