WASHINGTON — Oscar Elias Biscet, jailed for the better part of the last decade as one of Fidel Castro's harshest critics, was named by President Bush Monday to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Confined to a Cuban maximum-security prison since 2003, Biscet was one of eight people named to receive the award — one of the highest U.S. government awards given to civilians. Other winners include Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Harper Lee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Biscet's outspoken ways and his multiple trips to jail have made the Afro-Cuban one of Castro's most prominent opponents. He's opposed the Communist government since 1986, when as a recent medical graduate he protested the long hours that doctors had to work without pay. Between June 1998 and November 1999, he was arrested 26 times.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., had lobbied the White House to give the medal to Biscet and repeated the request when she met Bush in Miami on Oct. 12. Bush mentioned Biscet in a speech last week, in which he cited Cuba's human rights record to justify his continued tough stance against the Castro government.
In 1997, Biscet founded the Lawton Foundation of Human Rights, which denounced rights abuses in Cuba and campaigns for democracy. Later that year, the group unveiled a study on abortions on the island and documented instances in which newborns were killed in Cuban hospitals.
During Pope John Paul II's trip to Havana in January 1998, the group used banners and posters to call for the release of political prisoners.
That year, Biscet was kicked out of the Cuban National Health System, making it impossible him to work as a physician. In 1999, he was sentenced to three years in jail for public disorder, "inciting delinquent behavior'' and displaying the Cuban flag upside down.
Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience in 1999. The advocacy group lists 62 prisoners of conscience in Cuba and says many others are imprisoned for political motivations.
Biscet was released in late 2002 and then, just over a month later, he was arrested again, in the spring 2003 crackdown on dissent. He was sentenced to 25 years as a threat against the state.
According to his wife, Elsa Morejon, Biscet is held in a maximum security prison called Combinado del Este in Havana. Family visits are allowed once every three months and conjugal visits once every four months. He's confined to a cell with no mattress and no light or chair, among other deprivations.
Biscet suffers from high blood pressure, joint pain and failing eyesight, according to Morejon.
The White House called Biscet "a champion in the fight against tyranny and oppression.''
"Despite being persecuted and imprisoned for his beliefs,'' the White House said in a statement, "he continues to advocate for a free Cuba in which the rights of all people are respected.''
The award winners will be honored on Nov. 5.
CITATIONS FOR RECIPIENTS OF THE AWARD
Gary S. Becker has broadened the spectrum of economics and social science through his analysis of the interaction between economics and topics such as education, demography, and family organization. His work has helped improve the standard of living for people around the world.
Oscar Elias Biscet is a champion in the fight against tyranny and oppression. Despite being persecuted and imprisoned for his beliefs, he continues to advocate for a free Cuba in which the rights of all people are respected.
Francis S. Collins has revolutionized genetic research. Under his leadership, the Human Genome Project mapped and sequenced the full human genome and greatly expanded our understanding of human DNA.
Benjamin L. Hooks has dedicated his life to equality, opportunity, and justice. He is a pioneer of the Civil Rights movement, and his efforts to extend the full promise of America to all its citizens have helped bring our Nation closer to its founding ideals.
Henry J. Hyde has served America with distinction. During his career in the House of Representatives, he was a powerful defender of life and a leading advocate for a strong national defense and for freedom around the world.
Brian P. Lamb has elevated America's public debate and helped open up our government to citizens across the Nation. His dedication to a transparent political system and the free flow of ideas has enriched and strengthened our democracy.
Harper Lee has made an outstanding contribution to America's literary tradition. At a critical moment in our history, her beautiful book, "To Kill a Mockingbird," helped focus the nation on the turbulent struggle for equality.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has helped heal a country torn apart by conflict through perseverance, personal courage, and an unwavering commitment to building a more hopeful future for her homeland. The first woman elected president of an African nation, she has worked to expand freedom and improve the lives of people in Liberia and across Africa.
(Source: White House)
(Lesley Clark contributed.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2007