Leading Cuban dissident dies on hunger strike

HAVANA: Leading Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata died in hospital 85 days into a hunger strike, medical officials said, as "indignant" dissidents blamed the government for his death.

A spokesman for Havana's Hermanos Ameijeiras hospital, where the 42-year-old political prisoner was transferred late Monday from a smaller clinic near his prison in the eastern province of Camaguey, said Zapata died at 1:00 pm Tuesday (1800 GMT).

Jailed since 2003 and deemed a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, Zapata had been on a hunger strike to protest prison conditions that he blamed for his deteriorating health.

The movement "is not seeking martyrs," said Oswaldo Paya, leader of the Christian Liberation Movement dissident group. Zapata died "defending the freedom, rights and dignity of all Cubans," he added.

In Camaguey, authorities had placed the dissident in a provincial hospital before he was transferred by ambulance to Hermanos Ameijeiras, one of the biggest in the capital and outfitted with more care and surgical options.

Hours before Zapata's death, the banned Cuban Committee for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) had said his condition was "very serious."

Early this month, Cuban police harassed, beat and briefly jailed some 35 dissidents marching in Camaguey protesting the "cruel and inhuman treatment" of Zapata, according to CCDHRN.

The group's director, Elizardo Sanchez, said it was the first time in nearly 40 years that a Cuban opposition figure has died while on a hunger strike.

Zapata's demise is "bad news for the human rights movement and for the government as well," Sanchez said.

In Miami, a Cuban exile group quoted his mother as saying authorities essentially killed her son in Havana.

"They have done him in. My son's death was a premeditated murder," Reina Tamayo said in a statement released by the Cuban Democratic Directorate.

Hector Palacios, one of 75 political prisoners convicted in 2003 and who met Zapata in prison, told AFP that "people are indignant," and that a national mourning and fasting period was being considered.

"I'm crushed," said Palacios, who has been released for health reasons. Zapata "had no alternative but to decide on the hunger strike. The authorities took no pity on him, they just let him die," he added.

Zapata was convicted in 2003 for political activities anathema to the only one-party communist regime in the Americas. He received a similar sentence to the other 75 dissidents, but while jailed his sentence was boosted to 25 years in subsequent trials.

The Cuban government denies holding any political prisoners, instead calling those imprisoned "mercenaries" in the pay of US opponents of the regime. Dissident sources however put the number of political prisoners at 200 in a country of more than 11 million.

Palacios said the timing was terrible for Havana. Just as Latin American leaders wrapped up a Rio Group regional summit in Mexico, "the world learns that in Cuba at this moment a man has just died from lack of attention," he said. "It's a political crime."

Zapata's death could also cast a shadow over a visit to the island by Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who arrived late Tuesday.

Cuban dissidents had written a letter to Lula urging him to intercede to try to help Zapata or secure his release.

Oscar Espinosa Chepe, among the group sentenced in 2003, said Zapata's death was "evidence of the cruelty of Cuban authorities" toward those who peacefully press for human rights, and warned similar fatalities could occur.

"We fear that this will happen again because Cuban prisoners of conscience face terrible conditions," he said.

Zapata's death came days after a visit by Washington's highest-level delegation to Havana in years, during which a US diplomat met with "dozens of its mercenaries," according to Cuba's foreign ministry, which slammed the "bald-faced meddling" in Cuban affairs.