Wilman Villar, 31, died Thursday night in a hospital where authorities had transferred him after he fell ill, apparently from the effects of a seven-week hunger strike. His widow, Maritza Pelegrino Cabrales, told Human Rights Watch that prison guards had placed Villar naked in solitary confinement in a small, cold cell. Cuban rights activists said he succumbed to pneumonia.
"The responsibility for Wilman Villar Mendoza's death in custody lies squarely with the Cuban authorities, who summarily judged and jailed him for exercising his right to freedom of expression," Javier Zuniga, special advisor at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Villar was convicted in November of "contempt" and resisting arrest when he participated in an antigovernment demonstration in eastern Cuba. Supporters of the government of President Raul Castro dismissed the little-known Villar as a common criminal.
Human rights groups, and the regime's enemies, harshly condemned his treatment.
"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," the White House said in a statement.
The Cuban government later Friday issued a message casting doubt on whether Villar was truly a dissident or even on a hunger strike (link in Spanish). It noted that he received medical treatment and claimed that he had only affiliated with opposition groups to avoid an earlier domestic-violence charge.
By some measures, the plight of Cuba's small dissident community had improved in recent months. Thanks in part to the intervention of the island nation's robust Roman Catholic Church, the government last year released the final group of 75 activists, journalists and other opponents arrested in a 2003 crackdown. They were the last "prisoners of conscience" recognized by Amnesty International. In the London-based group's statement Friday, Villar was referred to as a prisoner of conscience, meaning he would have been the first so named since last year's releases.
Another dissident, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, serving a 36-year sentence, died in February 2010, after refusing food for 85 days.
Activists say Raul Castro, who took over from his ailing brother, Fidel, has changed tactics in dealing with dissent. Instead of long prison terms, authorities often opt for brief but frequent imprisonment.
"We are looking at thousands of people ... and short-term detentions, a day, a week, two weeks," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch. "It is effective social control with minimum international price."
The Cuban government brands most dissidents as "mercenaries" working to overthrow the Communist regime.
-- Tracy Wilkinson
Photo: The door of a member of the Cuban dissident group Ladies in White bears a black mourning ribbon in memory of Wilman Villar, who died Thursday after staging a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment. Credit: Franklin Reyes / Associated Press