Image: Orlando Zapata Tamayo
Adalberto Roque  /  AFP - Getty Images file
A 2003 photo shows Orlando Zapata Tamayo. He ded on the 85th day of a hunger strike, medical officials told AFP.
NBC News and news services
updated 2/24/2010 12:13:39 AM ET 2010-02-24T05:13:39

An opposition political activist imprisoned since 2003 died Tuesday after a lengthy hunger strike, members of Cuba's human rights community said.

Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a mason who was jailed on charges that included disrespecting authority, died at Havana's Hermanos Almejeras hospital after being transferred there from Havana's Combinado del Este prison.

Zapata Tamayo, 42, was not among the island's best-known dissidents. He was arrested in 2003 on charges of disrespecting authority, said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Havana-based, independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

He was sentenced to three years in prison, which Sanchez said was lengthened to 25 years, in part because of his political activism while behind bars.

Sanchez said Zapata Tamayo staged a hunger strike for weeks before his death. His family first announced last week that prison doctors said he was gravely ill.

Relatives were transporting Zapata Tamayo's remains to his hometown in Holguin province, said Vladimiro Roca, a leading dissident who said he spoke to Zapata Tamayo's family. Roca, a former fighter pilot and son of a legendary communist leader, served nearly five years in prison himself for his opposition political beliefs.

Blaming Castro
Word of Zapata Tamayo's death was first reported on Cuban exile radio stations in southern Florida, which broadcast an interview with his mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo.

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida — and the nephew of Fidel Castro's ex-wife, Mirta Diaz-Balart — said on the floor of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday that the dissident's "condition and fate are the Castro brothers' doing."

Hours later, as news of Zapata Tamayo's death spread, the congressman issued a second statement declaring that his "murder by the tyrant Fidel Castro and his cowardly jailers will never be forgotten."

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, of Florida, said in his own statement that "freedom-loving people everywhere should hold the Cuban regime responsible for the fate of Orlando Zapata Tamayo."

"His reported death today is a sad reminder of the tragic cost of oppression and a dictatorship that devalues human life," Nelson said.

Cuban dissidents outraged
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, told NBC News that the Cuban government should have taken measures to save Zapata Tamayo.

Calling it a "crime of pre-meditated murder," Sanchez said that prison authorities should have transferred him to the hospital two months ago instead of just last night. "They let Orlando starve to death," said Sanchez, one of the most prominent members in Cuba's small and illegal opposition.

Manuel Cuesta, another voice in the Cuban opposition, described Zapata as a "pacifist who died because of the regime's indifference." Cuesta said he believed the government would regret the death because of international criticism.

Some in Cuba's dissident community had hoped that Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva could have interceded on Zapata Tamayo's behalf.

After Lula had announced he would be seeing the Castro brothers this week, traveling to Havana after attending the Rio Group summit at Playa del Carmen, Mexico, some 50 Cuban political prisoners wrote him a letter petitioning him to lobby for their release. In the letter they made a special appeal for Zapata.

"We hope that you will take an interest" in Zapata, the letter said.

But Lula's plane touched down in Havana six hours after Zapata died.

NBC News' Mary Murray contributed to this report from The Associated Press.

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