Amnesty International declares Cuba graffiti artist a prisoner of conscience

By Daniel Trotta HAVANA (Reuters) - Amnesty International on Tuesday declared a Cuban graffiti artist as the country's only prisoner of conscience, demanding the release of a man held for "disrespect of the leaders of the revolution" over a satire of Fidel and Raul Castro. Danilo Maldonado, 32 and known as "El Sexto," has been held since December for painting "Fidel" and "Raul" on the backs of a pair of pigs in apparent reference to former leader Fidel Castro and his brother and current president, Raul Castro, Amnesty said in a statement. "We are declaring him a prisoner of conscience. At the moment, he is the only prisoner of conscience in Cuba. However, we are evaluating a number of other cases," said Josefina Salomon, a spokeswoman for the human rights group. The Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Officially, the government maintains it does not have any political prisoners, and characterizes Cuba's small but vocal dissident community as mercenaries paid by U.S. interests to destabilize the government. In conjunction with detente reached with the United States last Dec. 17, Cuba released 53 prisoners that the U.S. government had considered political. But Maldonado was detained eight days later when police discovered the animals in the trunk of his taxi before he intended to display them in a Christmas Day art show, Amnesty said. He has been on a hunger strike since Sept. 8, Amnesty said. "He has been held for a long time in a high security prison, without formal charges and without trial," said Elizardo Sanchez, leader of the dissident Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation. The commission estimates there are about 60 political prisoners in Cuba, including some two dozen held for peaceful political protest. Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama surprised the world last December by announcing the two former Cold War foes would seek to restore diplomatic ties, which happened eight months later. Castro and Obama shook hands on Tuesday during a rare one-on-one-meeting at the United Nations. "To jail an artist for painting a name on a pig is ludicrous. Cuban authorities are using any cowardly excuse to silence Danilo and send a message to others that any criticism of the government and its officials will not be tolerated," Carolina Jimenez, Americas Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International, said in the statement. (Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Chris Reese, Bernard Orr)