January 22, 2012 / 9:00 PM / 7 years ago

Cuba's Ladies in White call dissident death "murder"

HAVANA (Reuters) - The opposition group “Ladies in White” accused the Cuban government on Sunday of “murdering” by neglect a 31-year-old dissident who died last week following a hunger strike in prison.

Leader of the dissident group Ladies in White, Berta Soler, speaks during a protest march against the government along the main avenue of the upscale Havana district of Miramar January 22, 2012. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa

Ladies in White leader Berta Soler said Wilman Villar Mendoza died because the government did not respect his rights and that he was only the latest such victim to die for the same reason.

“Today is a day that the people of Cuba, like Ladies in White and the internal opposition, are in mourning. We are in mourning because we have lost a young man who gave his life for the freedom of the Cuban people,” said Soler, speaking in a tree-shaded Havana park after the group’s weekly silent march demanding the release of political prisoners.

“He was a dignified man, a man who really should not have

died, but ... the government killed him. It’s one more murder in the Cuban government’s account,” she said to about 40 other white-clad women.

The Ladies in White are Cuba’s leading dissident group and have been marching every Sunday in Havana since a 2003 government crackdown on political opponents.

“Why do we say murdered? This young man was only asking that they review his case, which the government did not listen to,” she said.

Villar died on Thursday in a hospital in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba after contracting pneumonia during a hunger strike in prison, dissidents said.

He 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.

He was put in solitary confinement under difficult conditions which, combined with his lack of nourishment caused the health problems that led to his death, human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez said.

Government opponents said Villar had joined an opposition group called the Cuban Patriotic Union last summer and been an active dissident ever since.

But the Cuban government said Villar was not a dissident and

had received the best medical care possible in an attempt to

save his life.

It said his legal problems arose not from political activities, but from a violent family dispute.

Soler equated Villar’s death to that of another imprisoned dissident, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died in February 2010 after an 85-day hunger strike.

“They let him die, the same as Orlando Zapata Tamayo. Orlando Zapata was another victim of the government, which let him die only because they didn’t respect his rights,” she said.

Cuba drew international condemnation for Zapata’s death and has been criticized for Villar’s demise by several countries including the United States.

A member of The Ladies in White carries a picture of Wilmar Villar Mendoza, who died on Thursday in eastern Cuba from the effects of a 56-day hunger strike, during their weekly march in Havana January 22, 2012. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa

“Villar’s senseless death highlights the ongoing repression of the Cuban people and the plight faced by brave individuals standing up for the universal rights of all Cubans,” a White House spokesman said on Friday.

Cuba issued a sharply worded response saying, “It is the United States government that practices torture and extra-judicial executions in the countries that it attacks and

that which uses police brutality against its own people.”

Editing by Eric Walsh

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