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Two dissidents start hunger strike in Cuba

HAVANA, Feb 3 – Two dissidents refusing to be forced into exile took on the Cuba\’s Communist government anew, launching hunger strikes to press their demand to be freed in their own country.

The two are among 11 high-profile political dissidents who rejected a deal for foreign exile as pushed by Havana.

Their move was rain on the political parade of the Americas\’ only one-party Communist regime, which — by releasing prisoners to church officials — is trying to portray itself as making progress on human rights even as it forces its opponents to emigrate.

President Raul Castro\’s government, in desperate economic straits and seeking international cooperation, faced embarrassment and international outrage last year after a prominent dissident died following his hunger strike.

Hunger strikers seem to be particularly noisome for Havana. Cuba maintains it has no dissidents, and calls most political opponents pawns in the pay of the United States.

But more than 100 political prisoners remain in the Caribbean nation — down from 201 in January 2010 — according to Elizardo Sanchez, who leads the Cuban Committee for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

And the strikers\’ move Wednesday came just as the local Roman Catholic Church said Cuba would release four other prisoners charged with piracy and send them to Spain.

The hunger strikers are part of a group of 52 political detainees who were to be freed in a deal brokered by the Catholic Church with Castro in July.

Of the group, 40 agreed to emigrate to Spain with their families and one stayed in Cuba, but the remaining 11 are still in jail and refuse to be exiled.

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The agreed-upon deadline for their release expired on November 7.

Sanchez identified the hunger strikers as Diosdado Gonzalez and Pedro Arguelles — both considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.

The pair, who began a hunger strike Tuesday, has turned down the offer to move to Spain and is demanding to be released in Cuba.

Gonzalez and Arguelles\’s protest is in solidarity with Gonzalez\’s wife Alejandrina Garcia, who has only been drinking water since Friday.

"I will not stop this hunger strike until he is released," Garcia told AFP in a phone call from her home in central Cuba.

"The government has made a mockery of these 11 men."

Laura Pollan, leader of the Ladies in White — a group of relatives of the jailed dissidents — visited Garcia, a 44 year-old agronomist, on Wednesday. She said she failed to dissuade her from continuing the hunger strike.

"The government has raised false expectations, because it said that everyone in the group would be released, including those who reject leaving the country, but that has all been a lie," said Pollan.

Pollan\’s husband Hector Maseda is one of the jailed dissidents.

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The four prisoners heading to Spain face piracy charges and do not belong to the original group of 52, according to a note from the office of the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

Sanchez says the men are accused of using violence to hijack vessels in failed attempts to flee Cuba, as well as other acts of violence.

"We are happy about to learn about the prison releases, but the government is using Spain\’s open door to get rid of prisoners that it does not want, while 11 prisoners of conscience remain in prison," Sanchez argued.

Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas was awarded the European Parliament\’s Sakharov prize in October after his latest hunger strike, following the February death of fellow dissident Orlando Zapata.

Zapata\’s mother charged government officials with allowing her son to die, which the Cuban government took the unusual step of denying repeatedly, and detailing the medical care he received.

Farinas, who ended his latest hunger strike, was not allowed to travel to pick up the prestigious Sakharov prize.


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