, STRASBOURG, Oct 21 – The European parliament awarded Thursday its prestigious human rights prize to Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas, who immediately called for an end to Cuba\’s Communist "dictatorship."
The 48-year-old journalist became the third Cuban to win the Sakharov Prize, as the European Union debates whether to normalise relations with the regime led by the Castro brothers since the 1959 revolution.
Farinas was awarded for putting his own health at risk by carrying out 23 hunger strikes to protest Havana\’s policies.
"Guillermo Farinas is an independent journalist and political dissident who was ready to sacrifice and risk his own health and life as a means of pressure to achieve change in Cuba," said parliament president Jerzy Buzek.
"He used hunger strikes to protest and to challenge the lack of freedom of speech in Cuba, carrying the hopes for all of those who care for freedom, human rights and democracy," Buzek said as he announced the winner.
Farinas, who heads the outlawed online agency Cubanacan Press, held a 135-day hunger strike earlier this year that left him near death but compelled the Cuban government to release 52 political prisoners.
"The civilized world, the European Parliament, is sending a message to the Cuban governing class that it\’s time for democracy and freedom of thought and expression in Cuba, an end to the dictatorship," Farinas told AFP from his home in Santa Clara, Cuba, after the award was announced.
Ethiopian opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa and Israeli rights group Breaking the Silence had also been on the shortlist for this year\’s Sakharov Prize.
A French far-left Euro MP, Marie-Christine Vergiat, complained that the winners are picked by the heads of political groups behind closed doors and that choosing three Cubans since 2002 was "too much."
The parliament awarded the Sakharov Prize to Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya in 2002 and the "Ladies in White" group of women whose husbands are jailed in Cuba in 2005.
The Communist government has never allowed the Ladies in White to travel to Strasbourg to pick up their prize at the parliament.
"I sincerely hope that together with Guillermo Farinas another Cuban laureate from 2005, the Ladies in White, will also be able to collect the Sakharov prize in person," Buzek said.
The ceremony is scheduled for December 15.
The 22nd Sakharov Prize, named after late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, comes with a cash award of 50,000 euros (70,000 dollars).
The decision to give this year\’s award to Farinas came four days before EU foreign ministers meet in Luxembourg to discuss the 27-nation bloc\’s relations with Cuba.
Spain\’s Socialist government wants the EU to normalise relations with Cuba, arguing that a shift away from a hardline stance would accelerate change on the island.
The Czech Republic and Slovakia, former communist bloc countries, oppose any change in the EU\’s current position, diplomats said.
The EU\’s "common position" at present is to insist that Cuba make progress on human rights and democracy before ties are normalised.
Europeans remain divided on how to proceed with Cuba ahead of Monday\’s meeting of foreign ministers, diplomats said.