Dissident dies on hunger strike in Cuban jail

Amnesty prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo died yesterday after an 85-day hunger strike over alleged beatings and degrading jail conditions. Orlando Zapata Tamayo, 42, one of Amnesty International’s “prisoners of conscience”, was so emaciated he was almost unrecognizable when he died at a prison hospital in Havana. Jailed in 2003 during a political crackdown, he is the first dissident to starve himself to death in almost four decades.

“They have assassinated Orlando Zapata Tamayo. The death of my son has been a premeditated murder,” his mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, told the Miami-based El Nuevo Herald in a telephone interview. “They managed to do what they wanted. They ended the life of a fighter for human rights.” There was no immediate response from the Castro government. Authorities have depicted political prisoners as US-funded mercenaries who plotted “counter-revolutionary” acts against the communist regime.

Zapata, a former plumber and member of the Alternative Republican Movement National Civic Resistance Committee, was one of 75 activists arrested during the “black spring” of 2003. He was sentenced to three years for contempt, public disorder and “disobedience” but that was increased to 36 years after he was convicted of acts of defiance in prison.

He stopped eating solid foods on December 3 to protest against what he said were repeated beatings by guards and other abuses at Kilo 7 prison in the eastern province of Camagüey. His back was “tattooed with blows” from beatings, according to his mother. Two weeks ago she reported he was “skin and bones, his stomach is just a hole” and that bedsores covered his legs. He was so gaunt nurses were unable to get intravenous lines for fluids into his arms and used veins on his neck instead.

Zapata was moved to a hospital at Havana’s Combinado del Este prison, but authorities did not try to force feed him, said Elizardo Sanchez of the independent Cuban Human Rights Commission. “His death shows the totalitarian arrogance that is not measuring the human impact of its acts,” he told Reuters. “It’s a great tragedy for his family, for the human rights movement in Cuba and for the Cuban government, because there will be protests in Cuba and abroad.” The commission, which is illegal but tolerated by the authorities, estimated there were around 200 people in jail for political beliefs.

Relatives were transporting Zapata’s remains to his hometown in Holguin province, said Vladimiro Roca, a leading dissident. Once one of the lesser known political prisoners, earlier this month his case reportedly triggered street protests – a rarity in the tightly-controlled island – which led to dozens being detained. The last activist to starve himself to death was the student leader and poet, Pedro Luis Boitel, who died in prison in 1972.

Bill Nelson, a US senator from Florida, said in a statement that Zapata’s death was “a sad reminder of the tragic cost of oppression and a dictatorship that devalues human life”.

This report appeared at the Guardian at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/24/cuba-political-hungerstriker-zapata-dies

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