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.
"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, jailed since 2003 on charges including disrespecting authority, died Tuesday at a hospital in the capital following a 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.
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. Gerardo Ducos, Amnesty International's Caribbean researcher, called it "a terrible illustration of the despair facing prisoners of conscience who see no hope of being freed from their unfair and prolonged incarceration,"
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 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.
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.
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."
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.
Sanchez said family members planned a funeral service later Wednesday in Zapata Tamayo's hometown of Banes on Cuba's northeast coast.
He 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.
A well-known dissident group, the "Ladies in White," held a small gathering in Zapata Tamayo's honor at the Havana home of one of their founders, Laura Pollan.