Cuban political activist Oswaldo Paya holds a photo of Orlando Zapata Tamayo,… (Alejandro Ernesto / European…)
Reporting from Mexico City — Cuban President Raul Castro made the rare gesture Wednesday of "lamenting" the death of a political prisoner who succumbed after an 85-day hunger strike, according to international news agencies reporting from Havana.
Castro spoke during a tour of Cuba's Mariel port with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and a statement containing his remarks was sent to Havana-based journalists.
He was commenting on the death Tuesday of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a 42-year-old plumber imprisoned in 2003 who was serving a 36-year sentence for disobedience of the government, among other charges.
Zapata was staging a hunger strike to protest conditions in Cuban jails. His death drew condemnation from Amnesty International and several countries, including the U.S., Spain and France.
Zapata's mother, Reina, bitterly decried her son's death.
"I want the world to see my pain," she said in a video posted on a dissident website. "The death of my son was a premeditated murder. He was tortured. . . . I want the world to demand the release of all the other prisoners of conscience and that this not happen again."
Castro denied that Zapata had been tortured or "executed," saying such things don't happen in Cuba, except at the U.S.-controlled Guantanamo Bay military base. He blamed the United States for Zapata's death, apparently because the communist government believes that all dissidents are working at Washington's behest.
Still, Castro's expression of regret over the death of a dissident was viewed as highly unusual.
Cuban human rights activists say about 200 political prisoners are held in the island nation's jails. The government contends that all are common criminals.