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26 February 2024

Cuba dissident buried as Havana cries foul


Cuban dissident Wilmar Villar was buried in his hometown in eastern Cuba on Friday, rights activists told AFP, as Havana denied the inmate was a political prisoner who died after a 50-day hunger strike.

Villar, 31, is the second dissident to die here after a hunger strike in less than two years, and his passing drew condemnation from national and international human rights groups, as well as foreign governments.

Cuba's communist rulers "bear complete moral, political and legal responsibility for the death of Wilmar, because he was in the custody of the authorities," said dissident leader Elizardo Sanchez, calling it an "avoidable death."

A wake was held for Villar at a funeral home in his town of Contramaestre, 900 kilometers (560 miles) southeast of Havana, but some said the authorities were preventing dissidents from attending.

"I have a government agent in front of my house," said Jose Daniel Ferrer, an ex-political prisoner who heads the opposition Patriotic Union of Cuba -- to which Villar belonged.

More than 30 dissidents in several towns "have already been arrested so they can be prevented from going to the funeral," added Ferrer, who was released in 2010.

Villar's remains were buried later Friday in a ceremony attended by family, and under tight police scrutiny, activist Ana Luisa Bedey told AFP.

Sanchez, who leads the banned but tolerated Cuban Committee for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said Villar had spent several days in "critical condition" at a hospital in the southeast of the Caribbean island.

The government of President Raul Castro denies it is holding any political prisoners, and considers jailed opposition activists to be US-backed "mercenaries."

In an official note published Friday on the state-run Cubadebate website, the government said it had "abundant evidence and testimony" that Villar was not a dissident.

It slammed what it called an "international defamatory campaign" led by foreign news media "in collusion with domestic counterrevolutionary elements" over the case.

The statement said Villar had died of "multiple organ failure" which led to "septic shock."

Villar had been convicted of "contempt, resistance and assault" and joined 60 political prisoners being held in Cuba, according to Sanchez's group.

He was married to Maritza Pelegrino, an activist in the opposition Ladies in White group. He leaves two daughters, ages five and 10.

Villar is the second Cuban dissident to die in a hunger strike since Orlando Zapata -- considered a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International -- who expired after 85 days without food in February 2010.

In the United States, home to 1.5 million Cuban-Americans, the White House said President Barack Obama's "thoughts and prayers are with the wife, family, and friends of Wilmar Villar."

Villar's "senseless death highlights the ongoing repression of the Cuban people and the plight faced by brave individuals standing up for the universal rights of all Cubans," the White House said, adding that the United

States "will not waiver in our support for the liberty of the Cuban people."

Havana and Washington have not had full diplomatic ties since 1961.

In Spain, home to thousands of Cuban dissidents, the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy expressed "consternation" over Villar's death, and urged Cuba to "liberate all political prisoners."

Jose Miguel Vivanco with the watchdog group Human Rights Watch said Villar was not allowed to speak in his defense or have an attorney present at his trial.