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Free political prisoners, Spain tells Cuba

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has demanded that Cuba's communist government release its "prisoners of conscience" and respect human rights following the death of a Cuban political prisoner on hunger strike.

world Updated: Feb 26, 2010 10:50 IST

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has demanded that Cuba's communist government release its "prisoners of conscience" and respect human rights following the death of a Cuban political prisoner on hunger strike.

The death on Tuesday of Orlando Zapata Tamayo resulted in the most direct call to date on the Castro regime by Zapatero's Socialist administration.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said Thursday that dialogue with the current Cuban government is the best way to move forward on the subject of respect for human rights on the Caribbean island.

The move closer to the Havana government and the dialogue process have been the traditional pillars of Zapatero's diplomatic efforts toward Cuba, but Madrid, the current holder of the European Union's rotating presidency, is taking into account the opinions of those within the EU who want a tougher policy toward the Castro regime.

On Wednesday, at the inauguration of the 4th Congress against the death penalty in Geneva, Zapatero urged all states to respect "until the last instant the life of each and every one of their citizens".

Although he did not name Cuba directly, sources within the Spanish executive branch said that the phrase was specifically linked to Cuba and to the death of Zapata after an 85-day hunger strike.

On Thursday, Zapatero was very direct in the Spanish parliament during the inauguration of the meeting of chairpersons of legislative foreign affairs committees of the EU member countries.

"We can imagine the suffering of the Cuban political prisoners and from here we must demand of the Cuban regime that it return freedom to the prisoners of conscience and respect human rights," the Spanish premier emphasized.

This is, he said, a "fundamental demand of the international community".

His words were echoed immediately in Madrid by the Cuba Democracia Ya organization of Cuban exiles, who applauded Zapatero's firmness.

Spanish Socialist members of the European Parliament also Thursday demanded the release of all prisoners of conscience in Cuba, and they expressed solidarity with the Cuban people "on their road toward democracy".

At Thursday's gathering of EU lawmakers in Madrid, Moratinos said that Madrid's "demanding" dialogue policy with Cuba "has its difficulties", while hastening to add: "does the policy of embargo and sanctions or non-involvement with the Cuban authorities give better results?"

Orlando Zapata, 42, was one of 75 government opponents rounded up and jailed in spring 2003 on charges of conspiring with the US to undermine the Cuban Revolution. While some of those dissidents have since been freed on medical grounds, more than 50 remain behind bars on the communist-ruled island.

Officials added years to Zapata's original sentence because of his repeated protests over prison conditions.

He stopped eating in December with the aim of pressuring authorities to acknowledge his designation by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience.

Last week, officials at the penitentiary in the eastern city of Camaguey grew alarmed about Zapata's condition and transferred him to a prison hospital in Havana, from where he was later taken to the military clinic where he died.