EU human rights laureate calls for change in Cuba
By RAF CASERT
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
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
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