STRASBOURG, France — The European Parliament awarded its annual human rights prize on Thursday to Guillermo Farinas, the Cuban dissident whose 134-day hunger strike this year helped draw attention to the plight of political dissidents jailed in a 2003 crackdown on dissent.
Cuba began freeing the 52 political prisoners earlier this year after an agreement ironed out with the help of the Roman Catholic Church, prompting Farinas to end his protest.
A 48-year-old psychologist and freelance journalist, Farinas has spent over 11 years in prison himself for a variety of offences, though he was not behind bars during the hunger strike. He decided to launch his protest after the death of a jailed political prisoner after a long hunger strike.
Cuba’s government considers him a common criminal paid for by Cuba’s enemies in Washington, and notes that some of his legal troubles include an assault on a co-worker and other violent behaviour. Farinas says all the charges are linked to his activism.
The parliament said it will invite Farinas, who lives in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara, to come to Strasbourg on Dec. 15 to collect the assembly’s 2010 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The prize carries a cash award of C50,000 ($69,205).
The award is sure to rile Havana’s communist leaders and complicate efforts to improve relations between Europe and the island, which have been strained since the 2003 crackdown on dissent.
Cuba’s leaders are already angry over the recent decision to award the Nobel Prize for literature to Mario Vargas Llosa, the Chilean author whose disdain for Fidel and Raul Castro is well-known, and the peace prize to a jailed pro-democracy activist in China, an important Cuban ally.
Previous winners of the Sakharov Prize include Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, and former South African President Nelson Mandela. Europe’s top human-rights prize was awarded twice before to Cubans: In 2002, a pro-democracy activist Oswaldo Paya, and in 2005 a dissident group, Ladies in White, received the award.
A former Cuban soldier, Farinas is a contributor to the independent press agency “Cubanacan Press,” which is maintained by anti-Castro Cuban-Americans.
Since 2006 he has repeatedly chosen hunger strikes to protest against what he says is the lack of freedom — notably the internet censorship — and shaky respect for human rights in his country.
Eight other candidates were in the running for the 2010 Sakharov Prize, but Farinas was chosen a winner by the leaders of all political factions in the 736-member European Parliament, the European Union’s assembly.
Speaking on behalf of the Christian Democrats, the assembly’s largest faction, Spanish legislator Jose Ignacio Salafranca said it was “very difficult to find a person who represents better the spirit of the Sakharov Prize” than Farinas.
The award was announced four days before the EU foreign ministers are to assess the 27-nation bloc’s relations with Cuba. The EU’s view has long been that Cuba must improve its human rights record before the relations can be upgraded.
Spain spearheads a bid to improve relations but the blocs former communist members in Eastern Europe oppose this.
Spain has been supporting the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba — which has recently become a major political voice on the island — in its negotiations for the release of political prisoners.