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Cuba says dead hunger striker was common criminal

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba fired back against international criticism on Saturday, saying in state-run press a prisoner who died of a hunger strike this week was a common criminal used by Cuba’s enemies for political purposes.

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Communist Party newspaper Granma said dissidents and foreign countries encouraged Orlando Zapata Tamayo to fight against the Cuban system and to undertake the 85-day hunger strike that ended in his death on Tuesday.

The case prompted international condemnation and calls from the United States, the European Union and Spain for Cuba to release all its estimated 200 political prisoners.

But Granma, in an article by Cuban essayist Enrique Ubieta Gomez, said “Despite all the make up, this has to do with a common prisoner who began his criminal activity in 1988.”

It said Zapata, a 42-year-old plumber from eastern Cuba, had served time in prison for crimes ranging from unlawful entry of a house to fraud before he went into jail for good in 2003 for crimes “not connected to politics.”

Behind bars, he was recruited by dissidents to join their cause and did so in part because of “material advantages” bestowed upon Cuba’s political opponents by “foreign embassies,” Granma said.

“This case is a direct consequence of the murderous policy against Cuba that encourages illegal immigration, disobedience and violation of laws and established order,” it said.

The Granma article echoed some of President Raul Castro’s comments, who on Wednesday regretted Zapata’s death but blamed the United States for what Cuba views as subversive policies.

Cuban leaders consider dissidents to be U.S. mercenaries working to overthrow the government.

Political analysts have said the death has likely stalled any near-term hopes for improved U.S.-Cuba relations and made it more difficult for Spain to change the European Union’s common position on Cuba during its current six-month term at the head of the 27-nation bloc.

Spain has said it wanted to remove obstacles to better relations with Cuba by eliminating a clause in the common position urging democracy and improved human rights on the communist-led island.

Cuban dissidents have said Zapata was a martyr to their cause and vowed to step up pressure for democratic change in Cuba.

Reporting by Nelson Acosta; editing by Jeff Franks