HAVANA (Reuters) - Two European politicians who survived a car crash that killed prominent Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya said on Monday that no other vehicle was involved and denied suggestions they had been deliberately forced off the road.
Their versions appeared to support the Cuban government’s description of the accident, contradicting suggestions by Paya’s family and some fellow dissidents that another vehicle may have hit the car from behind to cause the crash. They have called for an international investigation.
The government views opposition members as subversives trying, with outside help, to topple the communist system. Dissidents say they are routinely monitored and harassed by state security agents.
The driver, Spaniard Angel Carromero, said in a video shown to reporters in a Havana press conference that he lost control of the small rental car on a patch of highway under repair and unpaved on July 22 in Granma province 480 miles southeast of Havana.
The car struck a tree and the impact killed Paya, 60, and another dissident, Harold Cepero. They were sitting in the back seat and not wearing seat belts, authorities said.
“No vehicle hit us from behind. Simply, I was driving, I struck a pothole and I took the precaution of any other driver (by applying the brakes),” Carromero said.
Jens Aron Modig of Sweden, who was the front seat passenger and appeared at the press conference, said he and Carromero were taking Paya and Cepero to meet with supporters.
He said he slept through part of the trip and had only vague memories of the accident, but said ”I don’t remember that there was another vehicle involved.”
Both Europeans, members of conservative parties in their countries, suffered minor injuries.
The Cuban government said Carromero was driving too fast, had not heeded warning signs about road construction ahead and jammed on the brakes too abruptly.
They are being “retained,” not detained, in Cuba, awaiting disposition of the case, which could include criminal charges against Carromero, a Cuban official said.
Paya was awarded the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for human rights in 2002 for leading the Varela Project, a campaign to reform Cuba’s one-party political system.
He and supporters gathered thousands of signatures seeking democratic change, but the government, then led by Fidel Castro, rejected the effort.
In recent years, Paya’s visibility waned as other dissidents, particularly blogger Yoani Sanchez, became the more public face of Cuban opposition.
Modig said he had been sent by his party to meet with Paya and members of his Christian Liberation Movement and give him 4,000 Euros ($4,904) to help finance his work.
He said he now regrets his involvement with the dissidents.
“I understand that these activities are not legal in Cuba and would like to apologize for having come to this country to carry out illicit activities,” Modig said.
In the video, Carromero requested help in getting out of his predicament and that the case not become a political matter.
“I ask the international community to please concentrate on getting me out of here and to not use the traffic accident that could have happened to any other person for political ends,” he said.
Editing by David Adams and Cynthia Osterman