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Cuba lashes out at the U.S. over criticism of prisoner's death

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 5:49 PM EST, Sat January 21, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cuba disputes activists' account of how Wilman Villar Mendoza died
  • The Foreign Ministry says Villar was not a dissident, nor on hunger strike
  • The United States calls his death "senseless"

(CNN) -- The Cuban government defended its rights record and slammed the United States for its criticism over the death of prisoner Wilman Villar Mendoza.

Villar, 31, died in a hospital this week after his kidneys and other organs failed, according to Yoani Sanchez , a prominent Cuban blogger and advocate of press freedom in the country. He was on a hunger strike, activists said.

However, the Cuban government, via statements from its foreign ministry, denied Villar was on a hunger strike, and also that he was a dissident. It described him as a "common criminal" and said he was given all appropriate medical attention at one of the region's best hospitals.

"In a colossal act of cynicism, the U.S. government dares to condemn Cuba, while closing its eyes and failing to raise its voice against flagrant human rights violations," the foreign ministry said.

In a separate statement, it said Cuba regrets all loss of life, and "strongly condemns the vulgar manipulations of our enemies."

A Cuban court sentenced Villar to four years in prison in November on charges related to his participation in a demonstration, Sanchez said.

Villar started his hunger strike following his sentencing, halting it briefly in December when the authorities said they would listen to his demand for his case to be reconsidered, said Sanchez.

The White House on Friday praised Villar as a "courageous defender of human rights" and called his death "senseless."

"President Obama's thoughts and prayers are with the wife, family, and friends of Wilman Villar, a young and courageous defender of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba who launched a hunger strike to protest his incarceration and succumbed to pneumonia," it said.

His death comes at an awkward time for President Raul Castro's government. Another prisoner on a hunger strike died earlier this month, and Pope Benedict XVI is due to visit Cuba soon.

The other hunger striker, Rene Cobas, began his protest because he was not part of the government's recent mass pardon.

The decision to release 2,900 prisoners followed "numerous requests" from their family members and religious institutions, and was a humanitarian gesture, Castro said last month.

He cited the upcoming visit of Pope Benedict as one of the motivations behind the move, which he said showed the "generosity and strength of the revolution." The pope has said he plans to visit Mexico and Cuba before Easter.

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