Cuba dissident's widow rejects official death account

The widow of Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya has rejected a government report that blamed the car crash that killed her husband on the driver because she has been denied access to witnesses of his death.

Ofelia Acevedo criticized the government for not allowing her to talk to the two survivors of the crash, including the driver, who have been kept in custody since the July 22 incident in southeastern Cuba.

"I reject this report because it is the official report of the government of Cuba and because I have not had access to this information that they say they have," she told AFP. "I have no reason at all to believe this version of events."

The government insists Paya, 60, was killed when the rental vehicle in which he was riding went out of control and struck a tree.

In a lengthy report issued Friday, the Interior Ministry said the driver, Spanish political activist Angel Carromero, lost control of the vehicle when he abruptly hit the brakes on the slippery surface of an unpaved section of road while speeding.

Paya's family, however, has said it had information that the rental car was driven off the road by another vehicle.

Acevedo said she had not yet been able to talk to Carromero, 27, or the other survivor, Swedish political activist Jens Aron Modig, also 27.

"They were the last people who saw my husband alive and they have to know a lot more than I do so far," she said.

Authorities have kept the two witnesses in custody since they were discharged from hospital after being treated for injuries they suffered in the crash. Both men were in Cuba on tourist visas.

Acevedo said she did not believe the government's account of what Carromero said about the accident because "he has not had access to the communications media, outside the presence of state security, which has had him sequestered since he came out of the hospital."

Paya's widow said she had asked the ambassadors of Spain and Sweden to arrange for her to speak to Carromero and Modig but "not even they have been able to speak with them without the presence of state security."

Carromero, who is being held by police in a town close to where the crash occurred, faces charges of traffic violations resulting in death, which can carry up to 10 years in prison under Cuba's penal code.

In Madrid, Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo confirmed Carromero was still being held in Cuba, and could possibly be charged on Monday or Tuesday once the investigation was over.

"If he were to be charged, we would like him to be staying in our embassy; in any case the most important thing is to bring home" Carromero, the Spanish minister said.

Also killed with Paya, winner of the European Parliament's Sakharov prize in 2002, was a fellow Cuban dissident, 31-year-old Harold Cepero Escalante.

Paya, a fervent Catholic, is best known for presenting the Cuban parliament in 2002 with a petition signed by 11,000 people demanding political change in Cuba.

Known as the "Varela Project," the initiative was instrumental in opening debate in Cuba on the direction of a communist regime dominated for more than half a century by Fidel Castro and his brother Raul.

Paya's death was keenly felt among Cuba's dissident community, and authorities have been quick to respond to any sign of protests.

About 50 people were arrested Tuesday after they emerged from Paya's funeral in Havana shouting anti-government slogans. Most were later released without charge, activists said.

Swedish Foreign Ministry spokesman Anders Jorle said there was no reason Modig, who is being held in an immigration detention center in Havana, should not be allowed to go home.

The Cuban Commission on Human Rights, officially outlawed but tolerated by the government, urged the regime to allow the two survivors to speak publicly about the accident.

"Now that the government has given the official version, we continue to insist that the absolute truth will be known when both survivors are able to make statements, without any kind of conditions," said the group's leader, Elizardo Sanchez.

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