Cuban President Raul Castro says he regrets the death of a Cuban dissident after hunger strike

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Raul Castro regrets imprisoned dissident’s death

HAVANA — Cuban President Raul Castro has issued a seemingly unprecedented statement expressing regret for the death of a jailed dissident after a lengthy hunger strike. But he says that neither the man nor anyone else on the island has been tortured.

A statement issued Wednesday by Cuba’s Foreign Ministry says “Raul Castro laments the death of Cuban prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo who died after conducting a hunger strike.” It says the United States is ultimately to blame for his death, but did not explain how.

Zapata Tamayo’s death Tuesday has sparked condemnation in Washington and European capitals.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

HAVANA (AP) — The United States joined European nations in condemning Cuba’s communist government over the death of a jailed dissident after a long hunger strike, saying on Wednesday that his case shines a spotlight on the island’s incarceration of some 200 political prisoners.

Orlando Zapata Tamayo, jailed since 2003 on charges including disrespecting authority, died Tuesday at a hospital in the capital. Fellow dissidents say he had been on a weekslong hunger strike, becoming the first imprisoned opposition figure to die in such a protest in nearly four decades.

In life, he was not one of the island’s leading dissident voices. In death, his plight has quickly reverberated far beyond Cuba.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. government was “deeply saddened” to hear of Zapata Tamayo’s death. He said that U.S. diplomats who were in Havana last week for migration talks had raised the case with their Cuban counterparts.

“Mr. Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s death highlights the injustice of Cuba’s holding more than 200 political prisoners who should now be released without delay,” Crowley said.

Cuba has not had any comment on Tamayo’s death. The government describes the dissidents as paid stooges both of Washington and anti-Castro exiles in South Florida. It says Washington greatly exaggerates their numbers and influence as a way of justifying its 48-year embargo on the island.

When the visiting U.S. diplomats held a reception for about 40 dissidents last week, Cuba put out an angry statement, saying the meeting proved that Washington is out to overthrow the government.

In Brussels, European Union spokesman John Clancy called for Cuba to release all political prisoners and show more respect for human rights.

“The European Commission deeply regrets the death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata and offer our condolences to his family,” Clancy said, adding that human rights on the island “remain a key priority for the EU.”

And in London, Amnesty International called for an investigation into whether poor conditions played any part in Zapata Tamayo’s death.

“The tragic death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo is a terrible illustration of the despair facing prisoners of conscience who see no hope of being freed from their unfair and prolonged incarceration,” Gerardo Ducos, Amnesty International’s Caribbean researcher, said in a statement.

Spain, whose socialist government has been seeking to improve European relations with Cuba since it took over the EU presidency in January, said it was shocked.

“The Spanish government profoundly deplores the death of Orlando; the death of a human rights defender in Cuba,” Deputy Prime Minister Manuel Chaves said Wednesday. “There is a deficit of human rights in that country.”

Mariano Rajoy, leader of the opposition Popular Party, sent a telegram to Zapata’s mother.

“The death of Orlando Zapata symbolizes the commitment of the Cuban people to liberty and dignity and is an admirable example of dedication for democrats throughout the world,” he said.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero expressed “dismay” at the death of Orlando Zapata and said Paris had called on Cuba to release him.

Official reaction was muted in Latin America, whose governments this week held a “unity summit” that included Cuban President Raul Castro and that unanimously denounced the U.S. embargo of the island. South America’s leading political figure, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, himself a former political prisoner, visited Cuba on Wednesday and made no comment on the Zapata Tamayo case.

In Cuba, Zapata Tamayo’s mother left the capital with his body for their hometown of Banes late Tuesday, and a vehicle containing other leading dissidents departed a short time later to attend the services.

Veteran dissidents were joined by a relatively new voice: the son of revolutionary hero Juan Almeida Bosque, who fought alongside Fidel Castro in the guerrilla uprising that brought down dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Juan Juan Almeida Garcia posted an open letter to Raul Castro on his daughter’s Facebook page Wednesday, urging the Cuban president to resign.

“Doesn’t Zapata Tamayo’s death make you embarrassed?” he asked. “Must we go to such extremes? … I beg of you to resign. Get out of this country. You don’t deserve respect.”

The younger Almeida has run afoul of authorities for some time, most recently in November when he was briefly jailed. He has been petitioning the government for permission to travel to the United States for treatment for a painful, progressive form of spinal arthritis.

The British Embassy in Havana did not mention Zapata Tamayo’s case specifically, but “We remain worried about human rights abuses and due legal process in Cuba and continue to call for the release of all political prisoners,” said Chris Stimpson, an official at the embassy.

Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, told the Associated Press that Zapata Tamayo was arrested in 2003 and held for months without charge before being sentenced to three years in prison in his native Holguin province for disrespecting police authority.

Tamayo, a 42-year-old builder, was subsequently sentenced to 25 years for activism behind bars, Sanchez said, and was deemed by Amnesty International a “prisoner of conscience.” He was one of a small number of Afro-Cubans in the island’s tiny dissident community

As of January, Sanchez’s commission counted 201 political prisoners in Cuban jails. Cuba says it holds none.

Sanchez said Zapata Tamayo stopped accepting solid food on Dec. 3, drinking only water and a few liquids, some of which were forced on him by authorities. He was transferred to Kilo 8 Prison in Camaguey and placed in solitary confinement, where he continued to refuse solids, Sanchez said.

As his health deteriorated, Zapata Tamayo was taken to Havana’s Combinado del Este prison earlier this month, where he received some treatment in a lockup clinic, then was transferred to Hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras the day before his death.

Sanchez said the last Cuban dissident to die in prison was Pedro Luis Boitel, a Cuban poet who passed away after a 53-day hunger strike in 1972.

“It’s a terrible blow to us all,” said Sanchez. He said family members planned a funeral service later Wednesday in Zapata Tamayo’s hometown of Banes on the northern coast of Holguin province in eastern Cuba.

Sanchez said authorities in that province, as well as in the nearby provinces of Santiago and Guantanamo, had detained dozens of activists, preventing some from attending funeral services — but that claim could not be immediately be confirmed with police or the government.

In Havana, a well-known dissident group, the “Ladies in White,” held a small gathering in Zapata Tamayo’s honor at the home of one of their founders, Laura Pollan.

Carmelo Diaz, jailed during a government crackdown on dissent that saw authorities round up 75 leading activists in the spring of 2003, said he met Zapata Tamayo in prison before being freed on a medical parole.

“He was always a decent and cooperative man,” Diaz said. “He got along with everyone.”

Associated Press reporters Will Weissert and Andrea Rodriguez in Havana, Jorge Sainz in Madrid, Jamey Keaten in Paris and Robert Wielaard in Brussels contributed to this report.

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