WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama Monday lauded Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, killed in a weekend car crash, as a "tireless champion" of human rights in the Americas' last Communist-run outpost.
Paya was the second key dissident to die within a year. Cuban officials said he died in a car accident in the east of the island near Bayamo but friends and relatives have demanded a full investigation into his death.
"The president's thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Oswaldo Paya, a tireless champion for greater civic and human rights in Cuba," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.
"We continue to be inspired by Paya's vision and dedication to a better future for Cuba, and believe that his example and moral leadership will endure," the statement said.
"The United States will continue to support the Cuban people as they seek their fundamental human rights."
Paya, a 60 year-old engineer and fervent Roman Catholic, founded the Christian Liberation Movement, a group pressing for political change in Cuba.
He won international attention in 2002 when, on the eve of a visit by former US president Jimmy Carter, he presented Cuba's legislature with more than 11,000 signatures in support for an initiative calling for change in Cuba.
Cuba was then still run by Fidel Castro, and Paya's move was a bold, landmark first confrontation between a citizen seeking wholesale change -- economic and democratic -- from within the existing political system.
Paya won the European parliament's Sakharov prize for human rights later that same year.
Yet his defiance of the Communist system did not bear fruit at home.
When Carter mentioned Paya's project in a speech on Cuban state television, most Cubans, in a country with only official media, had never heard of it.
The Cuban legislature ultimately rejected the initiative.
In Cuba, activist Ernesto Martini told AFP that Paya will be buried in Havana on Tuesday. His wake was held Monday.
"Cuba has lost one of its most important voices of political dissent," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said Paya's death "is profoundly heartbreaking and infuriating," and described him as "a man of extraordinary courage, conviction, and peace."
Cuban authorities say Paya died when his rental car went off the road and hit a tree on Sunday, roughly 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Bayamo.
Another Cuban, Harold Cepero Escalante, who was an activist with Paya's group, was killed.
Two other men with them were injured -- Spaniard Angel Carromero Barrios and Swede Jens Aron Modig, both 27. They did not immediately speak to media.
In Havana, Paya's relatives and supporters called for an investigation.
"The circumstances of the accident are not at all clear," the Christian Liberation Movement told AFP in an e-mail signed by spokesman Regis Iglesias.
The group asked the "Cuban junta" to carry out a transparent probe.
Paya's daughter Rosa Maria said the family did not believe the death was an accident, according to Miami-based Spanish-language newspaper El Nuevo Herald.
"According to information we've obtained from people traveling with him, there was a vehicle trying to force him off the road... We don't think it was an accident," she said.
In Miami, many in the large Cuban-American community also questioned Paya's death.
US Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American mentioned as a potential Romney running mate, said it is "critically important the international community join those inside Cuba in pressuring the regime to be forthcoming with the truth."
And Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Cuban-American head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, decried Paya's death as "an overwhelming loss to the Cuban people and their struggle for democracy."
While the circumstances of the death were unclear, she charged that Paya and his fellow pro-democracy dissidents "had been harassed by Cuban state security authorities for decades."
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