Jailed Cuba dissident dies in hunger strike

HAVANA Fri Jan 20, 2012 1:12am EST

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HAVANA (Reuters) - A 31-year-old jailed dissident, Wilmar Villar Mendoza, died on Thursday in eastern Cuba from the effects of a 56-day hunger strike and what fellow opposition activists believe was mistreatment by the Cuban government, a Cuban human rights activist said.

Villar launched his hunger strike shortly after he was arrested in November, put on trial and sentenced to four years in prison for crimes including disobedience, resistance and crimes against the state, said Elizardo Sanchez of the Cuban Commission of Human Rights.

He said Villar joined an opposition group in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba called the Cuban Patriotic Union last summer and had been an active dissident since then.

He was placed in solitary confinement under difficult conditions which, combined with his hunger strike, caused serious health problems that led to his death, Sanchez told Reuters.

He was been taken to a hospital in the city of Santiago de Cuba on January 14 as his condition deteriorated, and died there.

"We hold the Cuban government categorically responsible because he died under their care. We consider this another avoidable death," he said.

Cuba drew international condemnation when another imprisoned dissident, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died in February 2010 after an 85-day hunger strike.

President Raul Castro said Zapata was just a common criminal, but his death is believed to have contributed to Castro's decision in the summer of 2010 to release 130 political prisoners in a deal brokered by the Roman Catholic Church.

Zapata was classified a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International, but Villar's case has drawn little attention.

The Cuban government has not yet said anything about Villar's death, but pro-government blogger Yohandry announced it in his blog, saying "the delinquent Wilmar Villar Mendoza died."

He predicted the death would bring criticism of Cuba from opponents of the Cuban government in the United States.

"The scavengers are beginning to arrive. Another campaign against Cuba starts to take off," he wrote.

Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez tweeted the news of Villar's death and asked "How many more have to die? How many more?"

(Reporting by Jeff Franks; editing by Todd Eastham)

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