Cuba rejects US criticism over prisoner's death 

The Cuban government is hitting back at Washington for its criticism over the death of a jailed dissident who was described by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience on hunger strike.

The Cuban Foreign Ministry lambasted the White House and the U.S. State Department for comments that "yet again demonstrate the permanent policy of aggression and meddling in Cuba's internal affairs, and are astonishing for their hypocrisy and double standard."

The statement issued late Friday accused the United States of torture, extrajudicial executions and police brutality, and asked where was the outcry from Washington when a 52-year-old Indian citizen died of malnutrition Jan. 3 after going on hunger strike in an Illinois jail.

The woman was being held on a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest after struggling with deputies who tried to arrest her for failing to show up for jury duty. She suffered from mental health problems and had been behaving erratically recently, according to her lawyer, family and friends, The Chicago Tribune reported.

"In a colossal act of cynicism, the American government dares to condemn Cuba while it closes its eyes and remains quiet about flagrant violations of human rights," said the statement signed by Josefina Vidal, the Foreign Ministry's director of North American affairs.

Wilman Villar, 31, died Thursday night from complications of pneumonia after a 50-day hunger strike to protest his four-year sentence for assault, resisting arrest and disrespecting authority, fellow dissidents said. He had been hospitalized since Jan. 14 and was in a coma.

Amnesty International said it had determined Villar was imprisoned for peaceful political activity and was preparing to issue an urgent action notice designating him as a prisoner of conscience. That would have made him the first inmate on the island to be recognized as such since the last of 75 government opponents arrested in 2003 walked free from Cuban lockups last spring. Amnesty designated three other Cubans as prisoners of conscience later Friday.

News of Villar's death prompted wide and immediate criticism in the United States, from Cuban-American members of Congress to the White House.

"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," President Obama said in a statement.

The Cuban government denied that Villar was on hunger strike or was even truly a dissident, describing him as a "common criminal" who joined up with government opponents in hopes that he could evade justice in a domestic violence case.

"A regrettable occurrence, unusual in Cuba, has once again been distorted and manipulated by petty political interests to justify the policy of blockade against our country," Vidal said.

Cuban officials use the term "blockade" to refer to the nearly 50-year-old U.S. economic embargo. The country denies holding any political prisoners and characterizes dissidents as counterrevolutionary mercenaries who seek to undermine the communist-run government at Washington's bidding.

Villar is the second jailed dissident to die on hunger strike in two years. In February 2010, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, also considered a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty, died after refusing food for months.

In late December, President Raul Castro announced that Cuba would pardon 2,900 prisoners ahead of a March visit by Pope Benedict XVI, including some convicted of political crimes. The list included many women, elderly inmates, and young people without long criminal records.

Inmates convicted of serious crimes like homicide, spying or drug trafficking were not included in the amnesty.

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