HAVANA — Amnesty International said Friday that it was on the eve of designating a Cuban dissident as a prisoner of conscience when he died following a hunger strike.
It later named three other jailed Cubans as prisoners of conscience, in the first such recognition of inmates on the island since the last of 75 government opponents jailed in a 2003 crackdown were freed last spring.
The human rights watchdog had planned to send a worldwide call to action Friday morning demanding the immediate release of Wilman Villar, Amnesty Caribbean campaign officer James Burke told The Associated Press by phone from London. But Villar died Thursday night from complications of pneumonia after a 50-day hunger strike. He had been hospitalized since Jan. 14 and was in a coma.
"We were going to launch an urgent action on his case today ... but unfortunately we came to the office today with the tragic news that he had passed," Burke said.
The group has strict criteria for what constitutes a prisoner of conscience, including a history of nonviolence.
Cuba denies holding any political prisoners and characterizes dissidents as mercenaries bent on toppling the Communist Party government at the behest of Washington. There was no mention of Villar in state-run media so far, and authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Until recently Villar, 31, was little known even among fellow dissidents, who said he apparently began taking part in anti-government actions only last fall. Authorities arrested him in November during a protest and threatened to punish him for a prior domestic violence case if he did not stop making trouble, Amnesty International and island dissidents said.
Villar was convicted of assault, disrespecting authority and resisting arrest, and sentenced in November to four years in prison. He protested by refusing to wear a prisoner's uniform and turning down food.
Villar's health worsened until finally he was hospitalized and slipped into a coma, said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which monitors detentions of dissidents in Cuba.
His death set off a flurry of news articles, blogs, tweets and recriminations from rights groups, dissidents and U.S. politicians, everyone from Cuban-American legislators and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney to President Barack Obama.
"Villar's senseless death highlights the ongoing repression of the Cuban people and the plight faced by brave individuals standing up for the universal rights of all Cubans," Obama said in a statement.
The government of Spain also expressed concern and called for the Cuban government to release "all political prisoners."
Meanwhile, defenders of President Raul Castro's government scoffed at the lionization of a man they called a common criminal, saying his death was being used for political ends.
"The death of a human being is always painful, but it seems some suffer more than others ... The death of an individual convicted by a court for acts of violence is converted into a weapon to be hurled at the Cuban Revolution," pro-government blogger Iroel Sanchez wrote.
"This man who is presented today as a peaceful fighter for human rights on the island was nothing more than a violent citizen, a proven danger to society," read a tweet from another pro-government blogger, Yohandry Fontana.
Villar is the second jailed dissident to die on hunger strike in the last two years. In February 2010, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, also considered a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, died after refusing food for months.
Zapata had been pressing for the release of prisoners from the 2003 crackdown, and a few months after his death the government began freeing them under a deal brokered by the Roman Catholic Church. Many went into exile with their families.
After the last of them walked free in April 2011, Amnesty said it no longer recognized any prisoners of conscience in Cuban jails.
In the months since, rights watchers say, authorities changed tack and would hold dissidents for a few hours or a couple of days before releasing them without charge.Comment on this story
But on Friday, Amnesty expressed concern about the Nov. 30 detentions of Ivonne Malleza Galano and her husband, Ignacio Martinez Montejo, picked up while staging a peaceful anti-government protest in Havana, and of Isabel Haydee Alvarez, an onlooker who objected to their arrest. It said all three were told they were arrested for "public disorder" but have been held without charge.
"Amnesty International considers them to be prisoners of conscience, detained solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly," it said, "and is calling for their immediate and unconditional release."
Associated Press writers Andrea Rodriguez in Havana and Jorge Sainz in Madrid contributed to this report.
Peter Orsi on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Peter(underscore)Orsi