Cuban leader Raul Castro said Wednesday the death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo was "lamentable," while his security forces clamped down on dissidents to avert protests and foreigners condemned the hunger striker's death.
Castro's comments, as reported by the official Cubadebate Web site, were highly unusual because Cuba regularly brands dissidents as U.S. "mercenaries" and denies it holds any political prisoners or commits any prison abuses.
"Castro lamented the death of the ... Orlando Zapata," Cubadebate reported, adding that he "affirmed this incident is the result of the relations with the United States" but giving no details on exactly what he meant with the reference to Washington.
In Cuba, "there were no tortured, there was no execution," he was quoted as saying. The Cubadebate report, which said he made the comment during a meeting with Brazil's visiting President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, briefly disappeared from the site and was not broadcast on Cuban TV or radio.
Human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez said Castro's comment showed "a lot of hypocrisy because the government had 82 days of the hunger strike to change the situation and did not." He added: "Perhaps he's not well informed on the daily abuses committed in our prisons."
Zapata, 42, classified as a political prisoner by Amnesty International after his arrest in 2003, launched the strike Dec. 3 to protest prisons beatings and other abuses. He died Tuesday in a Havana hospital where doctors had tried to revive him.
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