Cuba’s Raul Castro says he regrets death of dissident after hunger strike

By Paul Haven, AP
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cuban president regrets dissident’s death

HAVANA — Cuban President Raul Castro issued an unprecedented statement of regret on Wednesday over the death of a jailed dissident after a lengthy hunger strike that has sparked condemnation in Washington and in European capitals.

The Cuban leader blamed the United States for the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo but did not explain how Washington was responsible.

“Raul Castro laments the death of Cuban prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died after conducting a hunger strike,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday, adding that any reports that the man was tortured or mistreated in jail were false. Zapata Tamayo launched the hunger strike to protest what he said were poor prison conditions on the island. Zapata Tamayo’s mother has called her son’s death a “premeditated assassination.”

“There are no torture victims, there have not been any torture victims nor have there been any executions,” the ministry quoted Castro as saying during meeting with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva that was closed to media on the island.

“That sort of thing happens at the base at Guantanamo,” he added, referring to the U.S. military base in eastern Cuba used to jail terror suspect.

Cuban officials almost never comment on dissident activity, which they view as illegitimate and a creation of Washington. Castro weighing in personally was a first.

Zapata Tamayo, little known before his death, had been jailed since 2003 on charges including disrespecting authority. He died Tuesday at a hospital in the capital, becoming the first imprisoned opposition figure to die after a hunger strike in nearly four decades.

Several leading dissidents traveled from Havana to Zapata Tamayo’s hometown of Banes, 560 miles (900 kilometers) east of the capital, for a wake and funeral.

Well-known dissident Vladimiro Roca said plainclothed security officials watched Wednesday’s wake, but did not intervene. It was not clear when Zapata Tamayo would be buried.

Asked about Castro’s statement of regret, he said: “That is complete cynicism. They let Zapata Tamayo die.”

A Cuban human rights leader, Elizardo Sanchez, said authorities in eastern Cuba 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 Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. government was “deeply saddened” to hear of the 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.

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. 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.”

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero expressed “dismay” at the death and said Paris had called on Cuba to release him. The British Embassy in Havana did not mention Zapata Tamayo’s case specifically, but said it was “worried about human rights abuses and due legal process in Cuba.”

Official reaction was muted in Latin America, whose governments this week held a “unity summit” that included Raul Castro and that unanimously denounced the U.S. embargo of the island.

Cuba describes the dissidents as paid stooges and says Washington greatly exaggerates their numbers and influence as a way of justifying its 48-year embargo on the island.

In Castro’s statement, which the Foreign Ministry released under a photograph of the Cuban leader, the president said Zapata Tamayo’s death “is a result of the relationship with the United States.” It was not clear what he meant.

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

On Wednesday, 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 saying the Cuban president should be embarrassed by the death.

“Must we go to such extremes? … I beg of you to resign. Get out of this country. You don’t deserve respect,” he wrote. The younger Almeida was briefly jailed in November when after petitioning the government for permission to travel to the United States for medical care.

Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said 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.

Zapata 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.

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.

will not be displayed