Dissidents arrested at Paya funeral

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iol pic wld Oswaldo Paya funeral -arrest REUTERS People gesture victory signs as they attend the funeral of Oswaldo Paya, one of Cuba's best-known dissidents, in Havana.

Havana -

Cuban police arrested dozens of dissidents on Tuesday at the funeral of political activist Oswaldo Paya, after his daughter's vow to seek justice over his sudden death in a road accident.

Those arrested included Guillermo Farinas, a leading rights activist, who was held for questioning by plainclothes police deployed outside the Havana church where Paya's funeral was held.

Farinas, known for hunger strikes that drew attention to the plight of political prisoners in Cuba, and about 50 others were stopped by police after emerging from the funeral mass shouting slogans against the government.

They were forced onto two buses that the church had provided to take people to the cemetery where Paya was to be buried.

In a dramatic standoff that turned into a shoving match, dissidents started chanting “Freedom! Freedom!” before they were drowned out by about 100 pro-government activists roaring: “Long live the Revolution” and “Long live Fidel.”

Authorities said Paya, 60, died on Sunday along with another dissident, Harold Cepero Escalante, when their rental car went off the road and struck a tree in southeastern Cuba.

Paya's daughter, 23-year-old Rosa Maria Paya, sharply questioned that account in an impassioned statement delivered at the funeral before an audience that included leaders of Cuba's Roman Catholic church.

Rosa Maria said her scepticism of the official version is based on “the repeated threats against the life of my father and our family.”

Supporters “who have accompanied us during all these years, know the truth of what I am saying.”

Rosa Maria earlier told the Miami-based El Nuevo Herald that passengers in the car at the time of the crash had told the family of a second vehicle that had tried to force their car off the road.

She said she held the government of President Raul Castro accountable for the “physical well-being of my two brothers, my mother and all my family.”

A Spanish national who was driving the car was taken into custody by Cuban police for questioning after he was released from a Havana hospital on Monday, a Spanish embassy source said.

Angel Carromero Barrios, a 27-year-old activist with the youth wing of Spain's conservative ruling Popular Party, was being held in Bayamo, 744 kilometres south-east of Havana, the source said.

“He is still in Bayamo, in a detention centre,” the source said, adding that it was not unusual for the driver in a crash to be held for questioning.

A Swede, 27-year-old Jens Aron Modig, also was in the car at the time of the crash. He was treated at a local hospital and released. The Swedish embassy would not comment on his situation.

“We are going to shed light and seek justice for the violent death of my father and our young friend Harold,” Rosa Maria said at the funeral service.

“We do not seek vengeance. We do not do it out of hatred because as my father said... we do not have hatred in our hearts, but we do have a thirst for the truth and a yearning for liberty,” she said.

Paya, winner of the European Union's Sakharov prize for human rights in 2002, is best known for confronting the Cuban parliament that year with a petition signed by 11 000 people demanding political change in Cuba.

Known as the “Varela Project,” the initiative was instrumental in opening debate in Cuba on the direction of a communist regime dominated for more than half a century by Fidel Castro and his younger brother Raul, 81.

Paya was eulogised on Tuesday by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana and a key intermediary with Cuba's aging leadership, as a man whose political activism was rooted in his Christian faith.

“Oswaldo had a clear political vocation and, as a good Christian, this did not distance him from his faith or religious practice,” Ortega said.

“On the contrary, he always looked to his Christian faith as inspiration for his political options.”

His death brought a flood of reaction praising his courage and dedication to human rights.

Pope Benedict XVI extended condolences to Paya's family in a statement that Ortega read at the funeral service.

In Chile, two lawmakers complained that they had been denied visas to attend Paya's funeral. - Sapa-AFP


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