Castro 'regrets' death of jailed dissident

Cuban President Raul Castro issued an unprecedented statement of regret on Wednesday regarding the death of a jailed dissident after a lengthy hunger strike that has sparked condemnation in Washington and in European capitals.
Cuba's President Raul Castro, left, Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, centre, and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, right, pose for a photo in Havana on Wednesday. ((Ricardo Stuckert/Associated Press))

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

Castro blamed the United States for the death but did not explain why.

"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 was one of the 75 people arrested and jailed in 2003 as part of a government crackdown on opposition groups. The 42-year-old dissident persisted in an 85-day hunger strike and finally died Tuesday afternoon, becoming the first imprisoned opposition figure to die after a hunger strike in nearly four decades. The hunger strike was in protest of, what he said, were poor prison conditions on the island.

'Premeditated assassination'

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 a meeting on the island with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva that was closed to media.

"That sort of thing happens at the base at Guantanamo," he added, referring to the U.S. military base in eastern Cuba used to hold terror suspects.

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.

Several leading dissidents travelled from Havana to Zapata Tamayo's hometown of Banes, 900 kilometres east of the capital, for a wake and funeral.

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 immediately be confirmed with police or the government.

A picture of Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo hangs on a door during a service in Havana, Wednesday. Zapata Tamayo died Tuesday, becoming the first imprisoned opposition figure to die in such a protest in nearly four decades. ((Franklin Reyes/Associated Press))

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. government was "deeply saddened" to hear of the death.

"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."

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 Zapata Tamayo. 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." 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.

Cuba denies any political prisoners

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.

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 was subsequently sentenced to 25 years behind bars, Sanchez said, and was deemed by Amnesty International to be "a prisoner of conscience."

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

With files from The Associated Press