HAVANA | Cuban President Raul Castro issued an unprecedented statement of regret Wednesday over the death of an imprisoned 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 prison were false. Mr. 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 Mr. Castro as saying during a meeting with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva that was closed to news 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 detain terrorism suspects.
Cuban officials almost never comment on dissident activity, which they view as illegitimate and a creation of Washington. Mr. Castro weighing in personally was a first.
Mr. Zapata Tamayo, imprisoned 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Crowley said.
In Brussels, European Union spokesman John Clancy called for Cuba to release all political prisoners and show more respect for human rights.
And in London, Amnesty International called for an investigation into whether poor conditions played any part in Mr. Zapata Tamayo’s death.
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.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero expressed “dismay” at the death of Mr. Zapata Tamayo and said Paris had called on Cuba to release him.
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 Mr. Castro’s statement, which the Foreign Ministry released under a photograph of the Cuban leader, the president said Mr. 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.
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, told the Associated Press that Mr. Zapata Tamayo, a 42-year-old builder, 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. He was subsequently sentenced to 25 years for activism behind bars, Mr. Sanchez said.
Mr. Sanchez said Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.