Cuban dissident Farinas wins Sakharov rights prize (AFP)
STRASBOURG — The European parliament awarded Thursday its prestigious Sakharov human rights prize to Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas, as Europe debates whether to normalise ties with the Communist regime.
“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.
The 48-year-old journalist and psychologist has often used hunger strikes to press for greater freedoms in the island led by the Castro brothers since the 1959 revolution.
“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 this year’s winner.
Ethiopian opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa and Israeli rights group Breaking the Silence had also been on the shortlist for this year’s Sakharov award. The winner is chosen behind closed doors by the heads of the European parliament’s political groups.
Farinas is the third Cuban to receive the prize, after Oswaldo Paya in 2002 and the “Ladies in White” group of women whose husbands are jailed in Cuba, which received the award in 2005.
But 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 European Union 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.
Farinas held a 135-day hunger strike earlier this year that left him near death but compelled the Cuban government to release 52 political prisoners.
Another fast between 1995 and 1997 brought attention to his allegations of corruption at the hospital where he worked.
He also carried out a six-month hunger strike in 2006, but that time he failed to force the government to allow freer access to the Internet.