Cuban police detained at least seven people on Tuesday immediately following the funeral service of Oswaldo Payá, a leading opposition figure who died in a car crash on Sunday. Shouting anti-government slogans, Guillermo Fariñas and other activists were detained upon exiting the San Salvador Catholic Church in Havana. Fariñas has staged hunger strikes to protest the state repression of dissidents; in 2010, he won the European Union’s Sakharov human rights award, which was granted to Payá in 2002.
According to official accounts, Payá and another dissident, Harold Cepero Escalante, died when their car hit a tree travelling near the town of Bayamo, in eastern Cuba. However, a number of dissidents—including some arrested on Tuesday—have raised suspicions of foul play. Payá’s 23-year-old daughter, Rosa Maria Payá, questioned the official version of the death in a speech at the funeral.
Payá is best known for launching a petition known as the Varela Project to call for greater civil liberties in Cuba, including the right of assembly and freedom of expression. Following the funeral service, Payá’s son said that his father had received multiple death threats over his career as a dissident, especially after the Valera Project.
The European Parliament has awarded Cuba’s Guillermo Fariñas—psychologist, journalist and political dissident—the 2010 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in recognition of his defense of human rights. Fariñas is well-known in the international arena for staging more than 20 hunger strikes, leading to prison sentences totaling 11 years.
In announcing the awarding of this year’s prize to Mr. Fariñas, Parliament President Jerzy Buzek explained: “Guillermo Fariñas is an independent journalist and political dissident who was ready to sacrifice and risk his own health and life as a means of pressure to achieve change in Cuba… carrying the hopes of all of those who care for freedom, human rights and democracy.”
Mr. Fariñas is not the first Cuban laureate of the Sakharov Prize. Oswaldo Payá, perhaps the county’s most prominent political dissident, won the award in 2002, followed by Damas de Blanco in 2005—a group of women whose husbands are jailed in Cuba for protesting the regime. Damas de Blanco have been consistently barred by the government from collecting their prize in person, and Mr. Fariñas is not expected to be permitted to travel to Strasbourg, France, to receive this year’s award.
In his most recent hunger strike, Fariñas fasted for 135 days from February to July 2010 to pressure the Cuban government to free dozens of imprisoned political dissidents. He ended the strike when President Raúl Castro promised the Catholic Church that he would free 52 of the prisoners.
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCHRNR) reported yesterday that the number of political prisoners held by the Cuban government has declined over the past six months. According to the independent watchdog based in Cuba, the number of prisoners has fallen from 201 in January to 167 in July.
CCHRNR director Elizardo Sanchez said the drop is due in part to the government opting for brief arrests of dissidents over long-term detentions. Yet President Raúl Castro’s government is still guility of widespread human rights abuses of dissidents, most notably the late Orlando Zapata Tamayo and currently ailing Guillermo Fariñas.