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 would have been the first such recognition of an inmate 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 an urgent action notice Friday morning calling for 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.
Amnesty was considering other cases as possible prisoners of conscience and could make an announcement soon, Burke said. The agency has strict criteria for what constitutes a prisoner of conscience, including a history of nonviolence.
Cuba denies holding any political prisoners and calls island dissidents mercenaries bent on toppling the 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 was little known even among fellow dissidents, who said he apparently began taking part in anti-government actions only last fall. Authorities arrested Villar in November during a protest and threatened to punish him for a prior domestic violence case if he did not stop making trouble, according to Amnesty and island dissidents.
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 and he was recently hospitalized, said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which monitors detentions of island dissidents.
His death set off a storm of news articles, blogs, tweets and recriminations from U.S. politicians, from the Cuban-American congressional delegation 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," the president said in a statement.
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.
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, passed away after refusing food for months.