HAVANA – Cuban pro-democracy activist Guillermo Fariñas has launched a hunger strike – his 24th since the 1990s – to demand justice in the case of a fellow dissident who supporters say died after being beaten by police officers, although the government and the dead man’s family say no such aggression occurred.
In a phone conversation with Efe from his home in the central city of Santa Clara, Fariñas confirmed that he began the hunger strike at midday Friday to demand that Raul Castro’s government “prosecute those directly responsible for the murder” of Juan Wilfredo Soto.
Fariñas, a 48-year-old psychologist and independent journalist who has staged 23 other hunger strikes since the mid-1990s, also demanded that Cuban authorities publicly pledge not to beat dissidents who hold public demonstrations, “as they’re currently doing.”
Soto, 46, died on May 8, 2011, at a Santa Clara hospital; according to the Cuban dissident movement, his death came two days after he was severely beaten by police.
But the island’s Communist government, in a statement issued the day after his death, denied any police aggression against Soto and said the man instead died of multiple organ failure triggered by acute pancreatitis.
It also accused enemies of the Cuban Revolution of mounting a “new defamatory campaign.”
In subsequent days, Cuban official media reported statements by Soto’s sister and other relatives, who also denied that police had beaten the activist and said that version of events was anti-government propaganda.
Fariñas launched the new hunger strike almost a month after Soto’s death and less than a year after ending a four-and-a-half-month fast to demand the release of political prisoners following the death of Orlando Zapata.
The latter died on Feb. 23, 2010, after a lengthy hunger strike behind bars to force the Cuban government to acknowledge his designation by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience.
The international outcry over his death prompted the Cuban government to launch a dialogue last year with the Cuban Catholic hierarchy that led to the release of more than 100 political prisoners, including a group of 75 dissidents jailed in March 2003 amid the harshest crackdown in decades.
Fariñas spent most of that previous hunger strike in a Santa Clara hospital’s intensive care unit, where he received food and medication intravenously.
The dissident told Efe Friday that he suffers jugular vein thrombosis as a consequence of last year’s hunger strike and said the government will be responsible for “any fatal consequence” of his decision to launch a new fast.
Fariñas also said the Cuban opposition is preparing a formal complaint over Soto’s death to be filed with international human rights tribunals.
The European Parliament honored Guillermo Fariñas last year with its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, although he could not receive the award in person because Cuban authorities denied him an exit visa. EFE