Sunday, February 28, 2010

Prisoner of Conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo's triumph over totalitarian brutality

"There are times when you have to obey a call which is the highest of all, i.e. - the voice of conscience, even though such obedience may cost many a bitter tear, and even more a separation from friends, from family, from the state to which you may belong, from all which you have held as dear as life itself. For this obedience is the law of our being." - Mohandas Gandhi

Orlando Zapata Tamayo, Cuban dissident and Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, was born on May 15, 1967. He died in Havana, Cuba on February 23, 2010 at the age of 42 after more than eighty days on a water only hunger strike. During the hunger strike prison officials denied him water for more than two weeks in an effort to force him to end the strike.

Yoani Sanchez spoke with Orlando Zapata Tamayo's mother hours after her son's death on February 23. Reina Luisa Tamayo spoke through her pain thinking of those who remained behind: "I call on the world to demand the freedom of the other prisoners and brothers unfairly sentenced so that what happened to my boy, my second child, who leaves behind no physical legacy, no child or wife, does not happen again."

Who was Orlando Zapata Tamayo?

The facts about the kind of man he was can be gathered by information, provided by Amnesty International when declaring Orlando Zapata Tamayo a prisoner of conscience in January of 2004, are the following:
Date of arrest: 20 March 2003

Sentence: No trial yet, but charged with “desacato”, “desordenes publicos”, “public disorder”, and “desobediencia”.

Orlando Zapata Tamayo is a member of the Movimiento Alternativa Republicana, Alternative Republican Movement, and a member of the Consejo Nacional de Resistencia Cívica, National Civic Resistance Committee.

He has been arrested several times in the past. For example he was temporarily detained on 3 July 2002 and 28 October 2002. In November 2002 after taking part in a workshop on human rights in the central Havana park, José Martí, he and eight other government opponents were reportedly arrested and later released. He was also arrested on 6 December 2002 along with Oscar Elías Biscet, but was released on 8 March 2003.

Most recently, he was arrested on the morning of 20 March 2003 whilst taking part in a hunger strike at the Fundación Jesús Yánez Pelletier, Jesús Yánez Pelletier Foundation, in Havana, to demand the release of Oscar Biscet and other political prisoners. He was reportedly taken to the Villa Marista State Security Headquarters. He has not been tried yet, but the prosecutor is reportedly asking for three years’ imprisonment for “desacato”, “desordenes publicos”, “public disorder”, and “desobediencia”.

He has reportedly been moved around several prisons, including Quivicán Prison, Guanajay Prison, and most recently, Combinado del Este Prison in Havana. According to reports, on 20 October 2003 he was dragged along the floor of Combinado del Este Prison by prison officials after requesting medical attention, leaving his back full of lacerations.

Before moving on it is necessary to revisit the December 6, 2002 arrest. Amnesty in an earlier report offered more details on what happened:
On 6 December 2002 Oscar Elias Biscet González, president of the unofficialFundación Lawton de Derechos Humanos, Lawton Human Rights Foundation, was detained with 16 other dissidents after they attempted to meet at a home in Havana to discuss human rights.(15) This meeting was reportedly part of an effort by Dr. Biscet to form a grassroots project for the promotion of human rights called "Friends of Human Rights." When police prevented them from entering the home, Oscar Biscet and the others reportedly sat down in the street in protest and uttered slogans such as "long live human rights" and "freedom for political prisoners." They were then arrested and taken to the Tenth Unit of the National Revolutionary Police,Décima Unidad de La Policía Nacional Revolucionaria (PNR), in Havana.
This is not the profile of what the Cuban dictatorship claims is a "common criminal" but of a courageous human rights activist standing up to a totalitarian dictatorship with non-violent resistance. It is total defiance but without violence. For example, on October 28, 2002 Orlando Zapata Tamayo was arrested along with Julia Cecilia Delgado González, Lázara Caridad Sardiñas, Justo Martínez, Miguel Maceal, Enri Saumell, Carlos Raúl Jiménez, & Juan Ramón Rivero Despaigne as they along with several dozen other activists presented a petition criticizing the government's arbitrary and excessive fines against dissidents and human rights activists.

There are over 198 nonviolent methods, one of which is the hunger strike. Orlando engaged in a number of these methods with a few outlined above related to past arrests: signed public statement, engaged in a sit-in, participated in teach-ins on human rights. The most powerful and dangerous non-violent method he engaged in was the hunger strike. It is important to take a closer look at hunger strikes.

The Hunger Strike

Start watching video at 46:38 which talks about fasts and hunger strikes in a nonviolent context.

Michael Nagler in the video above from his course an Introduction to Nonviolence filmed in the fall of 2006 offers a great analysis of fasts and hunger strikes beginning at 46 minutes 38 seconds, and is highly recommended for a deeper understanding of fasts and hunger strikes. In the video Nagler offers a word of caution: "Nonviolence is not a feel good operation its very scientific you have to know when to do what."

Nagler's Five rules for Hunger strikes

  1. Have to be the right person for the job. Not to be used by just anybody.
  2. Right audience. (You should only fast against someone who was in sympathy with you on a very deep level. Gandhi never fasted against the British.)
  3. Doable demand
  4. Last Resort
  5. Consistent with the rest of your life

Nagler in his above lecture on nonviolence describes fasting unto the death within nonviolence:
"This is not a case of suicide. You are not killing yourself. You are risking death. What you are doing is putting your life into the hands of another person." ... "You are not killing yourself but you are saying to the person that your behavior is so unacceptable that if you continue it its going to kill me. It is an extreme case of taking on the suffering that is in a situation." ...This is different from a threat because what you are saying to the person is "I am going to exhibit to you mirror back to you the ultimate consequences of what you are doing." ... "This is an act of truth. You are killing us - you are killing our people and I'm going to show you that you are doing it to awaken your conscience."...Thats why you have to be carrying on a conversation on a nonverbal level.
Hunger Strikes in a Cuban Context

The International Committee of the Red Cross in an online essay by "Medical and Ethical Aspects of Hunger Strikes in Custody and the Issue of Torture" authored by Hernán Reyes offers the following observation about the circumstances where hunger strikes are carried out until the end. It states:
In countries where prisoners’ rights are not fully respected or even completely disregarded, and where torture is practised; hunger strikes may be a last resort for prisoners wanting to protest against their situation.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was only able to visit Cuban prisons twice over the past 51 years and has been denied entry into Cuba despite numerous requests between 1959 and 2010. There was an extensive and unannounced visit that was completed in July of 1959 and a second visit in September of 1988. International human rights organizations have also been barred from access to Cuban prisons and in many cases Cuba with the rare exception of 1988. Amnesty International in their February 24, 2010 statement following Orlando Zapata Tamayo's death stated: "The death of Orlando Zapata also underlines the urgent need for Cuba to invite international human rights experts to visit the country to verify respect for human rights, in particular obligations in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."

This was a last resort. Right now there are extremely ill prisoners of conscience being subjected to the systematic denial of medical treatment and kept in conditions that are destroying their health. They are dying slowly there names are Ariel Sigler Amaya, Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, Librado Linares García, Jorge Luis González Tanquero, José Luis García Paneque, Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso and Normando Hernández González. This is what Orlando Zapata Tamayo was protesting against.

In the video above human rights activist Juan Carlos Gonzalez Leiva describes Orlando's demands, prison conditions, and the circumstances surrounding his arrest and time in prison where Orlando was savagely beaten on ten occasions for defending human rights.

Agents of the Cuban dictatorship failed to break Orlando Zapata Tamayo's spirit refusing him water for over two weeks in the midst of a water only hunger strike now they are trying to libel and slander his memory trying to portray him as a common criminal. They will fail again, even though in the past the Cuban regime has been able to sell a lie with their massive propaganda apparatus, because the outrage generated over the reality that the brutality that Cuban prisoners of conscience are subjected has led to one of them demand decent treatment and carry out a hunger strike to the death. This combined with the inhuman treatment visited on the hunger striker that became a contributing factor to his death the reality of what goes on in Cuban prisons have been exposed if only for a moment to the world. It is up to human rights activists and friends of Cuba to hold the Castro regime accountable and provide solidarity and protection to Cuba's human right defenders.

To forgive is not to forget. The merit lies in loving in spite of the vivid knowledge that the one that must be loved is not a friend. There is no merit in loving an enemy when you forget him for a friend. - Mohandas Gandhi

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