The United States today condemned the death of a Cuban political prisoner who had been on hunger strike. Dissidents accused the regime of ‘murder,’ as human rights groups blamed the Communist authorities for the ‘avoidable’ loss.
Wilman Villár (right) died Thursday night of pneumonia in the eastern city of Santiago, said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
“We hold the Cuban government categorically responsible because he died under their care. We consider this another avoidable death,” he said.
The 31-yearc old democracy activist, a member of the Union Patriotica de Cuba (Cuba’s Patriotic Union*), was on a hunger strike to protest a four-year prison sentence handed down in November.
“President Obama’s thoughts and prayers are with the wife, family, and friends of Wilmar Villar, a young and courageous defender of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba who launched a hunger strike to protest his incarceration and succumbed to pneumonia,” said a statement from the White House.
“How many more have to die? How many more?” said dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, who tweeted the news of his death.
She predicted that the regime would try to portray Villár as a “common criminal,” as they had after Orlando Zapata Tamayo died last February, following an 85-day hunger strike to protest inhumane prison conditions.
Shortly after her comments, pro-government blogger Yohandry described him as a “proven criminal” and a “danger to society”.
Villár’s death highlights the regime’s repressive tactics against Cuba’s democratic opposition, said Human Rights Watch.
“We deplore the death of Wilman Villár,” said US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “He was a young and courageous defender of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba.”
His convicted for peacefully protesting against the government, “is an all-too-common means for silencing dissent,” she said. “His death underscores the continuing problem of political repression, and political prisoners, in Cuba.”
When asked whether Washington blamed Cuba for Vilmar’s death, she replied: “He was unjustly arrested for peaceful protest in our view, he went on a hunger strike and he died in a Cuban jail for a political offense.”
The Villár case “underscores the importance of the president’s continued efforts to support the desire of the Cuban people to freely determine their own future,” said Neda A. Brown, another State Department spokeswoman.
“We will continue to support, in the words of the president, ‘pockets of freedom’ in Cuba through Cuban American family visits and remittances, purposeful travel, and humanitarian assistance to dissidents and their families,” she added.
Villár was due to be recognized as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, the group said. Cuba’s Communist authorities, who “summarily judged and jailed him for exercising his right to freedom of expression,” are responsible for his death, said Amnesty. The regime “must stop the harassment, persecution, and imprisonment of peaceful demonstrators as well as political and human rights activists,” it added.
According to one account, Maritza Pelegrino Cabrales, Villar’s wife said that indignant shouts of “murderers, he was murdered” rang out at the Juan Bruno Zayas hospital in Santiago de Cuba as his death was announced.
Officials used her husband’s illness to pressure her to end her involvement with the Ladies in White.
“They told me if I depart from the Damas de Blanco, they were going to release him. I said no, and then they threatened to take my daughters,” she said.
State Security officials prevented her from viewing his body, as troops surrounded the hospital. Activists report a wave of fresh arrests in the city of Santiago de Cuba.
Exiled Cuban dissidents in Spain called for a demonstration at the Cuban embassy in Madrid, as the Spanish government called on Cuba to release all remaining political prisoners.
“We shall work with the European Union so that there will be a horizon of democracy in Cuba,” said Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, who expressed “consternation and condolences” after Villar’s “tragic” death.
Cuba remains “one of the world’s most repressive countries,” according to the newly-released Freedom in the World 2012 survey from Freedom House, the rights and democracy watchdog.
Over the past year, the island’s citizens “experienced a small improvement linked to the limited reduction of economic restrictions by the government of Raúl Castro,” the report adds. “Unlike in Burma, however, Cuba underwent no political liberalization.”
Villár Mendoza’s death comes at an awkward time for President Raul Castro’s government. Another prisoner on a hunger strike died earlier this month, and Pope Benedict XVI is due to visit Cuba in the coming months.
Another hunger striker, Rene Cobas, began his protest because he was not part of the government’s recent mass pardon. Cobas had gone on strike immediately after the president announced the latest round of amnesty on December 23. Cobas called the pardons “exclusive and limited,” Sanchez said.
Pro-government bloggers and tweeters reportedly called the hunger strikers “suicidal criminals that play European Parliament roulette and lost.”