Sunday, January 22, 2012
THE NEW YORK TIMES: PRISON DEATH BRINGS OUTCRY AGAINST CUBA
MEXICO CITY — Human rights advocates and American officials condemned the Cuban government on Friday for continuing to limit political freedom, reacting to the death of an imprisoned Cuban dissident who had carried out a hunger strike to protest his sentence.
The dissident, Wilman Villar Mendoza, 31, died Thursday after 50 days without food, according to relatives. He was at least the second political prisoner known to die of a hunger strike since President Raúl Castro took over from his brother Fidel in 2006, highlighting what experts describe as the new Cuban model: cautious moves toward a more open economy, coupled with continued repression of dissent.
“Human rights conditions in Cuba remain poor,” said William Ostick, a State Department spokesman. “The Cuban government continues to limit fundamental freedoms, including freedoms of speech, including for members of the press, and of peaceful assembly.”
Cuba denies holding political prisoners and in a statement late Friday said that Mr. Villar “was not a dissident nor was he on a hunger strike,” saying he died of sepsis after being hospitalized.
Human rights advocates say there is no way to know how many government opponents remain in jail because independent investigators cannot visit. They acknowledge some progress. In 2010, Mr. Castro agreed to free 52 prisoners who had been arrested during a 2003 crackdown. The Cuban government also decided to release 2,900 inmates late last year, but human rights defenders on and off the island say dissidents were not released. The selective pardon itself led to protests, and after the pardons, another inmate — who advocates said was not a political prisoner — died of a hunger strike to protest his exclusion from the list.
Those on the island trying to lobby for greater freedom also say these releases have not affected patterns of state repression. For example, Mr. Villar Mendoza’s wife, Maritza Pelegrino Cabrales, told Human Rights Watch that government officials had harassed her repeatedly for associating with the Ladies in White, a group of wives, mothers and daughters of political prisoners who often endure threats and assaults when they protest publicly in Havana. Ms. Pelegrino said state security officers threatened to take away her daughters, 7 and 5.
“We’re all afraid,” said a neighbor who answered Ms. Pelegrino’s cellphone Friday because she had gone to her husband’s funeral. “Maritza doesn’t know what’s going to happen with her children. She’s worried.”
Mr. Villar Mendoza was detained Nov. 2 after participating in what his wife described as a peaceful demonstration for political freedom and human rights. She said prison guards placed him in solitary confinement after he started his hunger strike on Nov. 25. The last time she was allowed to visit him was on Dec. 29.