Jailed Cuban Dissident Dies After Hunger Strike

A Cuban dissident imprisoned for seven years has died. Cuba's human rights community said Orlando Zapata Tomayo had been on a hunger strike for weeks before his death. He was arrested in 2003 on charges of disrespecting authority.

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In Cuba, a jailed political opponent of the Castro government has died after an 85-day hunger strike. Human rights activists say that he is the first political prisoner to die in Cuba's jails since 1972.

Nick Miroff reports from Havana on the man's death, and the fate of political prisoners under Raul Castro.

NICK MIROFF: Orlando Zapata Tamayo was 43, a mason of Afro-Cuban descent from a small town in eastern Cuba. He was given a three-year jail sentence in 2003 for disrespecting authority. And the punishment was extended to 25 years after Zapata refused to wear a uniform or cooperate with guards.

About two and half months ago, he stopped eating. And by the time he was taken to a Havana hospital yesterday, it was too late.

Mr. ELIZARDO SANCHEZ (Director, Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation): (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Elizardo Sanchez is the director of Havana's illegal but tolerated Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. He called Zapata's death an avoidable tragedy.

Mr. SANCHEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: The government could've saved Zapata with medical intervention, Sanchez said. But instead, they let him die, like a defenseless dog.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. SANCHEZ: Hello.

MIROFF: The phone in Sanchez's office was ringing all morning with calls from abroad, and reports of a new wave of detentions in eastern Cuba. Sanchez said about 20 other dissidents have been taken into custody since Zapata's death, in what he called an attempt to prevent any protests or other political activity surrounding the funeral.

Mr. SANCHEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: We predict that the movement will keep protesting, and the repression against us will continue, Sanchez said, but they've made Orlando Zapata Tamayo into a martyr.

Cuban President Raul Castro said in a press statement that he regretted Zapata's death - an unusual showing of sympathy - but he laid the blame on the United States, which supports Cuba's small opposition movement. There was no torture and no execution, said Castro. That's what happens on the base at Guantanamo, he said, referring to the U.S. military prison on the island.

Under Cuban law, though, political opponents can be tried for a broad range of activities that are considered subversive. Barbara Estravao(ph) is a legal adviser to Cuban dissents.

Ms. BARBARA ESTRAVAO (Legal Adviser): (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: These prison sentences are so severe, it's terrible, Estravao says. These are innocent people. They haven't killed anyone. Their punishments are cruel.

Following Zapata's death yesterday, the U.S. State Department released a statement, urging Cuba to free all political prisoners. American officials said they expressed concern about Zapata's deteriorating health during migration talks with Cuban authorities in Havana last week.

Ms. LAURA POLLAN (Ladies in White): (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: At Laura Pollan's home in Havana, a group of prisoners' wives called the Ladies in White held a memorial for Zapata. He wasn't a murderer, Pollan said. He wasn't a thief. He wasn't a rapist. He was simply a young man who wanted a better future for Cuba, a fighter for human rights. He was one of the men who wished for something else for Cuba.

Activists say there are around 200 dissidents in Cuban jails, but the Cuban government doesn't acknowledge them as political prisoners. A few have been released since Raul Castro took over Cuba's presidency from his brother in 2008, but Sanchez and others say the human rights situation on the island hasn't changed with that transition.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

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