The death of a human rights activist jailed in Cuba for opposing government policies highlights yet again the plight of hundreds of political prisoners being held in the island nation. The United States decries his imprisonment, and that of all prisoners of conscience, and extends heartfelt sympathies to his family for their loss.
Orlando Zapata Tamayo died February 23 after an 80-day hunger strike to demand better jail conditions for himself and other dissidents. An Afro-Cuban who supported his family as a bricklayer, he was also a political activist when arrested in a police crackdown in 2003 and held for months without charge. Eventually he was accused of disorderly conduct and "contempt for authority" in his native Holguin province. He was convicted and sentenced to 3 years in jail. Later he was given a 25-year sentence for activism behind bars.
In October, to protest jail conditions and the treatment of prisoners, he stripped off his prison uniform and refused to eat solid food. He was transferred to a prison in Havana when his health deteriorated and finally transferred to a public hospital the day before he died. He was the first such dissident to die in custody in recent memory.
There are more than 200 similar prisoners of conscience jailed in Cuba, many in failing health like Zapata Tamayo. This violates international human rights law, which as a member of the United Nations, Cuba is obligated to respect. The United States again urges the Cuban government to allow the International Commission of the Red Cross and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Prisoners to visit Cuban jails. We also urge Cuba to release all of its prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally.