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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Cuban government is responsible for death of dissident, report says

Oswaldo Payá, a critic of the Castro government, shown in Havana in 2010, died in July in a car accident in Cuba.

By Emiliano Rodríguez Mega and Frances Robles

The Cuban government was responsible for the death in 2012 of a prominent political activist who had organized a movement that had sought to compel the government to allow more freedom, according to a report released Monday by an international human rights agency.

The activist, Oswaldo Payá, was killed in a suspicious car crash in eastern Cuba that his family and supporters always believed had been caused by the government.

At the time of his death, Payá, 60, was one of the most prominent members of the Cuban opposition, having gained international attention for leading a grassroots campaign behind a referendum that would have given Cubans the right to choose the country’s political system.

Cuban authorities had said that the crash happened after Ángel Carromero, a young Spanish politician who was driving the vehicle in which Payá was traveling, lost control and hit a tree. Carromero was later arrested and sentenced to four years in prison for vehicular manslaughter.

But the independent investigation, which took a decade to complete and reviewed evidence and testimonies from several witnesses, contradicts the government’s findings. Payá’s car was hit by an official government car, causing it to crash, according to the report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is part of the Organization of American States.

Another passenger, Harold Cepero, a rights activist, was also killed.

The commission found “serious and sufficient evidence to conclude that state agents participated in the death” of the two men. “Both were subjected to various acts of violence, harassment, threats, attempts on their lives, and, finally, a car crash that caused their deaths.”

Cuban officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The island was excluded from participating in the Organization of American States, which former President Raúl Castro called an “instrument of imperialist domination.” A 2009 resolution lifted that suspension, but Cuba never rejoined.

Payá was the founder and leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, a dissident party pushing for a multiparty democracy on the island, which has been ruled by an authoritarian communist regime for more than six decades.

His efforts culminated in the late 1990s in the Varela Project, a petition calling for a national referendum to overhaul the ruling system, including open elections, free speech and amnesty for political prisoners. The proposal represented a defiant rebuke to the iron grip that Fidel Castro, the country’s leader at the time, held on Cuba.

In response, authorities detained Varela activists and forced some petition signers to rescind their signatures. Payá was “under constant surveillance and harassment,” the report by the commission said. The effort to hold a referendum ultimately failed.

After the car crash, Carromero was taken to a hospital where he was surrounded by soldiers, the report said. He explained that another car had crashed into them and forced them off the road, but a Cuban official insisted there had been no collision.

“Of course, I replied, that was a lie, that there had been no accident, but a blatant attack. He punched me in the face,” Carromero told the international commission. He has said the government pressured him to support their version. He also told the commission that the official said, “Your future will depend on your confession.”

The commission called on Cuba to offer reparations for the human rights violations committed against Payá and Cepero, begin a thorough investigation to clarify what happened and punish those responsible.

“Government officials tried to blame their deaths on a car accident, but the Payá family knew better,” said Kerry Kennedy, the president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the group that took the case to the human rights commission, in a video posted on Twitter.

Payá, a charismatic leader, posed a legitimate threat to the regime, said Angelita Baeyens, the Kennedy organization’s vice president of international advocacy and litigation.

“They could not just kill him,” she said. “They needed to silence him in a way that seemed like an accident, otherwise he would become a martyr, which he did.”

Baeyens acknowledged that the commission’s findings were largely symbolic since Cuba will almost certainly not comply with any of the panel’s recommendations.

“This verdict proves what we have always known, which is that the Cuban regime assassinated my father and Harold Cepero on orders that could not have come from anyone other than the top of the Cuban intelligence apparatus,” said Rosa María Payá, Payá’s daughter.

Rosa María Payá founded an initiative, CubaDecide, in 2015 to transform Cuba’s repressive political system.

“We have lived with the pain of the Cuban regime assassinating my father,” she said. “We have seen the great failure of the dictatorship, which did kill the man but could not kill his legacy.”

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