Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cuban dissident grounded for EU 'free thought' prize ceremony

Bust of Andrei Sakharov, Washington DC
The Cuban authorities have confirmed that Guillermo Fariñas, who was awarded the EU's 'free thought' prize in October, would not be allowed to leave the country to receive the award in person at a ceremony in the European Parliament tomorrow afternoon. 

Cuban dissident Fariñas was unveiled as the winner of the European Parliament's 2010 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the EU assembly's president, Jerzy Buzek, on 21 October.

"Regrettably, Mr. Fariñas is experiencing problems leaving the country, even though I made a personal appeal in a letter to the president of Cuba, Mr. Raul Castro. If Guillermo Fariñas were to leave in the next few hours, he could still be here in time to receive his prize," said Buzek yesterday evening.

But those hopes were dashed later that night after the Cuban authorities refused to grant Fariñas permission to leave the island, meaning that the accolade will instead by awarded to an empty chair.

Back in October, Buzek was optimistic that the Cuban dissident would be allowed to make the trip. "I hope to hand over the award to him in person, here in Strasbourg, in December, which would be a tremendous moment for the European Parliament and for all Cuban prisoners of conscience," he said then.

Possible impact on EU-Cuba relations

It remains unclear whether the Castro regime's decision not to allow Fariñas will impact upon EU-Cuba relations. "We expect that Lady Ashton will take due note of these problems and that she will take this into account in future relations with Cuba," said President Buzek yesterday.

He was echoed by French MEP Joseph Daul, chairman of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), in urging Ashton to take into account Cuba's decision not to let him travel in any future evaluation of the EU's relations with the island.

"The European Parliament and the EU should join forces with those who are fighting for freedom in Cuba rather than follow the script provided by the La Habana regime," Daul said.

"The absence of Guillermo Fariñas from the ceremony of the 2010 Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought this Wednesday in Strasbourg means that nothing has changed in Cuba," added Daul, whose EPP group was instrumental in convincing the Parliament to award Fariñas the prize.

In February Fariñas – a supporter of non-violent protest and vocal critic of the Castro regime – started his 23rd hunger strike, calling for the liberation of 26 political prisoners who were ill after many years in detention. He ended his 135-day fast on 8 July after the Catholic Church had intervened to secure the liberation of 52 political dissidents.

Fariñas has spent over 11 years in prison over the course of his life and is the founder of the 'Cubanacan Press', an independent press agency which informed the world of the destiny of political prisoners in Cuba until the authorities shut it down.

'Fundamental freedoms' denied

"The fact that Guillermo Fariñas has not received the necessary permission to travel out of the island and come to Strasbourg to receive the award proves that the Castro brothers' dictatorship continues to deny fundamental freedoms," EPP chair Daul said yesterday.

The Sakharov Prize, consisting of a certificate and a cheque for €50,000, will be awarded in absentia at a ceremony in Strasbourg at 1pm tomorrow afternoon. MEPs will symbolically leave empty the chair on which Fariñas was due to sit before delivering his acceptance speech.
Guillermo Fariñas

Tomorrow will not be the first time the prize has been awarded in absentia. In 2008, Chinese dissident Hu Jia was given the accolade but was unable to receive it as he was in jail in China. In his absence, his wife spoke to MEPs during their plenary session in Strasbourg via video link from Beijing, where she was being held under house arrest.


"The combat of Guillermo Fariñas is and will be an example for all people who fight for freedoms and democracy and the fact that he will not be allowed to come to Strasbourg shows that the European Parliament made the right choice, as the Sakharov Prize has been created to honour exceptional people like Andrei Sakharov who have suffered in the fight against intolerance, fanaticism and dictatorship," said French MEP Joseph Daul, chair of the centre-right European People's Party, upon hearing the news.

A group of EPP MEPs backing Fariñas' nomination said his "struggle has been, and still is, a shining example for all defenders of freedom and democracy," while Spanish EPP member José Ignacio Salafranca described Fariñas as "the epitome of someone defending peaceful resistance".

Next Steps 

15 Dec.: Guillermo Fariñas to be officially awarded Sakharov Prize in Strasbourg.

From: EurActiv

To read:

Meeting the Demands of Reason: The Life and Thought of Andrei Sakharov

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