February 24, 2011
Paul Haven, AP
HAVANA -- The United States on Wednesday denounced what it said is a campaign of intimidation against the mother of a Cuban political prisoner who died after a hunger strike, and called on the government of Raul Castro to release all dissidents still behind bars.
Meanwhile, Cuban opposition leaders on the island planned low-key protests to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2010 after an 83-day hunger strike.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley joined a chorus of international criticism of Cuba for its treatment of Zapata's mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, who was detained for about 12 hours last week in her hometown of Banes, in eastern Cuba.
"Mr. Orlando Zapata Tamayo's death highlights the injustice of Cuba's detention of political prisoners who should now be released without delay," he said in a statement from Washington on Wednesday. He called Zapata a "courageous humanitarian who died defending a universal human right - freedom of expression."
Amnesty International issued its own denunciation of Cuba's treatment of Zapata's mother on Tuesday.
Reached by telephone in Banes, Reina Luisa Tamayo said she spent the day laying flowers and a Cuban flag on her son's grave and then went to get passport photos made for a visa to the United States, which has granted her political refuge.
She said she plans to have her son cremated and bring the ashes when she departs Cuba for good - expected to be in the coming months, although Tamayo recently said she was still awaiting Cuban paperwork.
Cuba had no comment on the anniversary. The government considers the dissidents to be mercenaries paid by Washington to destabilize the country, and says its doctors did everything they could to keep Zapata alive during his fast.
Since Zapata's death, the government has cleared its jails of many political prisoners. It has freed 46 activists, intellectuals and social commentators arrested in a 2003 crackdown, and now holds just six men arrested in that sweep who are considered "prisoners of conscience" by Amnesty.
It has also freed about 25 other prisoners arrested separately for violent - but politically motivated - crimes like hijacking and sabotage. Elizardo Sanchez, a prominent human rights activist on the island, says around 100 such prisoners remain in Cuban jails, some convicted of violent acts including murder.
Members of the Ladies in White, formed by the wives and mothers of the 2003 detainees, gathered at the Havana home of Laura Pollan, one of the opposition group's leaders, to mark the anniversary of Zapata's death.
Associated Press reporters saw a heavy police presence on the streets outside Pollan's home, perhaps in anticipation of a march. But another Ladies in White leader, Bertha Soler, said the women had no plans to emerge.
"All we wanted was to get together and pay tribute to Zapata," she said. "We are praying, lighting candles and laying flowers. For the moment, we have no plans to march."
Other Cuban opposition figures also marked the anniversary.
Yoani Sanchez, a blogger who has gained international recognition for her searing commentary about life on the island, posted a computer-altered photograph of a famous image overlooking Havana's Plaza of the Revolution. In place of revolutionary icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara, it showed the face of Zapata.