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Cuban dissident killed in car accident

2012-07-23 08:21

Havana - Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, a winner of the Sakharov human rights prize who challenged the island's communist regime for decades, died on Sunday in a car accident, the government and a priest said.

Paya, aged 60, is the second key dissident to die in Cuba in less than a year.

"His death has been confirmed. We went to the hospital and an official showed us his identification," Manuel Gonzalez, a priest in the eastern Bayamo area, where the accident took place, said by telephone.

Paya died on the road linking Bayamo, located in Granma province about 750km east of Havana, and the city of Las Tunas.

"We don't have any other details. We can only hope that there will be an autopsy and that an investigation is launched," Gonzalez said.

Paya, an engineer specialising in medical equipment, was the founder of the Christian Liberation Movement advocating political change in the Communist-run island.

Rejected by UN

He earned international attention in May 2002 when, on the eve of the arrival of a visit by former US president Jimmy Carter, he presented parliament with more than 11 000 signatures of support for the Varela Project, an initiative calling for change in Cuba, then run by Fidel Castro.

Paya won the European parliament's Sakharov prize later that same year.

Past winners of the prize named after Soviet-era physicist and political dissident Andrei Sakharov include anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela and former UN chief Kofi Annan.

Although the Varela Project was rejected by the National Assembly, Paya pursued his efforts to bring about change - efforts that saw him win other rights prizes and a honorary doctorate from Columbia University in New York.

His death, however, follows that of fellow dissident Laura Pollan, the founder and leader of the Ladies in White, who died in a Havana hospital in October 2011 after suffering acute respiratory distress.

Gustavo Machin, an official in Cuba's International Press Centre, a department of the foreign ministry, said another Cuban died in the accident that claimed Paya's life. A Spanish national and a Swedish national were injured.

'Dedication to cause'

Paya was married to Ofelia Acevedo. The couple had three children. Two Catholic nuns said the family had made plans to fly to Bayamo.

Dissident Guillermo Farinas said Paya was "a person who contributed to the democratisation of Cuba through his dedication to the cause".

Although Paya was never imprisoned for his opposition activities, many of the 75 dissidents jailed in spring 2003 belonged to his Christian Liberation Movement.