Castro regrets Cuba prisoner death, blames U.S.

HAVANA Wed Feb 24, 2010 6:04pm EST

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HAVANA (Reuters) - The hunger strike death of a Cuban political prisoner provoked international condemnation on Wednesday and regrets from Cuban President Raul Castro, though he suggested the United States was to blame.

Officials from the U.S. State Department and European Union called on Cuba to release its political prisoners, as did human rights group Amnesty International, which said the death on Tuesday of Orlando Zapata Tamayo after 85 days on hunger strike was a "terrible indictment" of repression on the island.

Castro, in the midst of hosting a visit from Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was asked by Brazilian reporters about Zapata's death.

"We regret it very much. That's the result of relations with the United States," he was quoted as saying while standing beside Lula at the port of Mariel, west of Havana.

Cuba considers dissidents to be U.S. mercenaries working to overthrow its communist government and blames Washington for encouraging their illegal activities against the Cuban state.

"We didn't murder anyone, here no one was tortured. That happens at the Guantanamo base, not in our territory," Castro said.

Castro referred to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the United States houses foreign terrorism suspects and has admitted using techniques that are widely considered to be torture while interrogating them.

Reyna Tamayo, mother of the dead prisoner, did not accept Castro's explanation of events.

"They were the ones who killed him, premeditated. They were the ones who killed him," she told Reuters by telephone from her home in the eastern city of Banes, where her son's body was transported after dying in a Havana hospital.

She said Cuban authorities wanted him buried Wednesday night, but she hoped to put off the funeral until Thursday.

Zapata, jailed since 2003 and serving a 36-year sentence for crimes including "disrespect, public disorder and resistance," launched the hunger strike to protest prison conditions, the independent Cuban Human Rights Commission said.

Commission spokesman Elizardo Sanchez faulted Cuban authorities for not doing enough to save Zapata, a 42-year-old plumber and disputed Castro's comments about there being no torture in Cuban prisons.

"The real history of Cuba in recent decades belies what General Castro said," he said. "We reaffirm our conviction that Orlando Zapata was the victim of a horrendous crime."

Dissidents said they were being detained in the homes or elsewhere by government agents to prevent a public outcry.

London-based Amnesty International said Zapata's death by starvation reflected the desperation of political prisoners in Cuba, who are said by the Cuban Human Rights Commission to number about 200.

Zapata was one of 55 jailed Cubans labeled "prisoners of conscience" by Amnesty International.

"Faced with a prolonged prison sentence, the fact that Orlando Zapata Tamayo felt he had no other avenue available to him but to starve himself in protest is a terrible indictment of the continuing repression of political dissidents in Cuba," it said.

The case "also underlines the urgent need for Cuba to invite international human rights experts to visit the country to verify respect for human rights, in particular obligations in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," the group said.

In its statement, the U.S. State Department said it was "deeply saddened" by Zapata's death and that it highlighted the "injustice" of holding political prisoners.

Zapata's death looked likely to add new tensions to U.S-Cuba relations, which after a slight warming under U.S. President Barack Obama had worsened again with Cuba's recent detention of a U.S. contractor on suspicions of being a spy.

Several members of the U.S. Congress, including Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, sent sharply worded statements on his demise.

"Let us take his sad and untimely death and renew our commitment to assure that the Cuba of the future is rid of the failed ideology which killed this brave man," she said on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Esteban Israel; editing by Tom Brown and Anthony Boadle)

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