EU human rights laureate calls for change in Cuba

Posted on Wednesday, 12.15.10
EU human rights laureate calls for change in Cuba
Associated Press

BRUSSELS — A Cuban dissident used a video address at Wednesday’s award of the EU’s main human rights prize to call for the release of political prisoners in his homeland and for the government to end attacks on the opposition.

Guillermo Farinas was not allowed by Cuba to travel to receive the Sakharov human rights prize in Strasbourg, France.

Farinas, a 48-year-old psychologist and freelance journalist, said the travel ban was “irrefutable testimony to the fact that unfortunately nothing has changed (in Cuba).”

An empty chair – set out for him – sat in the middle of the legislature with a Cuban flag draped over it. EU Parliament President Jerzy Buzek said it signified a “sad day” on the annual occasion when the bloc wants to laud a stirring example of bravery in the face of human rights oppression.

Farinas won the Sakharov prize in October after his 134-day hunger strike helped draw attention to the plight of activists, opposition leaders and social critics in Cuban jails.

He had been kept alive through periodic intravenous feedings at a hospital in his hometown Santa Clara, but began accepting food and water a day after an agreement between the government and Cuba’s Roman Catholic Church to release 52 political prisoners.

Farinas has spent more than 11 years in prison for a variety of offenses, though he was not behind bars during the hunger strike. He has said he decided to launch his protest after the death of a jailed political prisoner following a long hunger strike.

Cuba’s government considers him a common criminal paid for by Cuba’s enemies in Washington, and notes that some of his legal troubles include an assault on a co-worker and other violent behavior. Farinas says all the charges are linked to his activism.

Previous winners of the prize include Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. It was awarded twice before to Cubans: in 2002 to pro-democracy activist Oswaldo Paya and in 2005 to a dissident group, Ladies in White.

On the eve of the ceremony Farinas said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press from his home in Cuba that authorities denied him permission to travel because the government never received a formal request from the European Union. Cubans hoping to leave the island must request a “tarjeta blanca” or “white card,” from the government.

In his video address, transmitted to solemn silence at the legislature, he compared it to a card the slaves had to carry in colonial times.

“I had everything ready, my passport, a visa for France and my tickets,” Farinas told the AP. “The only thing missing was the political will of the Cuban government.”

He welcomed the prize. “This prize for me represents first and foremost a reason to increase my commitment to keep up the fight so that we will one day have true democracy in Cuba,” he said.

He called for the release of political prisoners, respect for peaceful opposition, the abolition of laws contravening human rights, rights for a free media and trade unions and a call to allow the Cuban diaspora to become involved in political life.

Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia contributed from Havana

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