STRASBOURG — Cuban hunger striker Guillermo Farinas landed the European Parliament's prestigious Sakharov human rights prize on Thursday, and within hours saw Havana agree to free five more jailed dissidents.
Farinas called immediately for an end to Cuba's Communist "dictatorship," days from a European Union debate on whether to normalise relations with the regime led by the Castro brothers since the 1959 revolution.
The 48-year-old journalist held a 135-day hunger strike earlier this year that left him near death but compelled the Cuban government to release dozens of political prisoners.
As activists and politicians celebated Farinas' nomination, Havana authorised the release of five extra dissidents -- taking to 57 the number set for freedom under a landmark deal reached in May.
Thirty-nine have already been freed on terms brokered by the Roman Catholic Church that should see those who agree transferred to Spain by November.
Parliament speaker and former Polish Solidarity activist Jerzy Buzek hailed Farinas as "ready to sacrifice and risk his own health and life as a means of pressure to achieve change in Cuba.
"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 underlined.
Showing the physical signs of 23 hunger strikes, Farinas dedicated the award to the people of Cuba struggling "to get out of this dictatorship."
"The civilized world, the European Parliament, is sending a message to the Cuban governing class that it's time for democracy and freedom of thought and expression in Cuba, an end to the dictatorship," Farinas said from his home in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara.
The award for Farinas, who heads the outlawed online agency Cubanacan Press, came ahead of a meeting on Monday of EU foreign ministers aimed at reviewing the bloc's hardline policy toward Cuba.
The United States steadfastly refuses to lift its 62-year-old economic embargo on the communist regime.
Before news of the extra five from the church in Havana, US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Washington had taken note of Cuba's moves to release prisoners "after efforts of the Catholic Church and the government of Spain."
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner meanwhile had urged the Cuban authorities to "pursue progress along the lines seen these past few months, to get to the point where all the political prisoners are released."
It was a third Cuban Sakharov Prize win after Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya in 2002 and the "Ladies in White" group of women whose husbands were jailed in Cuba, three years later.
"Farinas... is an example of dignity, a man that has been willing to give his life for the freedom of political prisoners and who has never surrendered in his struggle," said that group's head Laura Pollan.
The Communist government has never allowed the women to travel to Strasbourg to receive their award.
Farinas' ceremony is scheduled for December 15, and Buzek said he hoped the Ladies in White would also be able to pick up theirs in person.
Named after late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, the prize comes in its 22nd year with a cash award of 50,000 euros (70,000 dollars).
The decision to crown Farinas came four days before EU foreign ministers meet in Luxembourg to reassess 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, diplomats said.
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