Havana: A well-known Cuban dissident, Oswaldo Paya, has died at the age of 60. Paya was killed in a car crash on Sunday.
He spoke fearlessly over the decades against the Communist regime of Fidel and Raul Castro and went on to become one of the most powerful voices of dissent against their half-century rule.
According to reports, Paya and fellow activist Harold Cepero Escalante were killed in a one-car crash in La Gavina, just outside the eastern city of Bayamo. As per Cuban authorities, a Spaniard and a Swede - co-passengers - were injured in the accident.
According to Cuba`s International Press Center, witnesses said the driver of the rental car lost control and struck a tree. Police have begun investigating the incident.
"This Sunday has been a day of mourning. A terrible tragedy for his family and a loss for the opposition movement," said Elizardo Sanchez, a human rights advocate and de facto spokesperson for Cuba`s small opposition. "He was a prominent leader. He dedicated years of his life to fighting for democracy."
Paya`s home is in Havana and it was not immediately clear why he was near Bayamo, 500 miles (800 kms) east of the capital.
He is the second leading Cuban dissident to die in the last year, after Laura Pollan, co-founder of the protest group Ladies in White, died of heart failure in October.
Paya, who drew strength from his Roman Catholic roots as he pressed for change in his homeland, continued to voice his opposition after Fidel resigned due to illness in early 2008, calling the passing of the Presidency to younger brother Raul a disappointment.
"The driving force of society should be the sovereignty of the people, not the Communist Party," Paya wrote after the new Parliament chose Raul Castro as head of state and government. "The people of Cuba want changes that signify liberty, open expression of their civil, political, economic and social rights."
Paya, an electrical engineer, gained international fame as the top organizer of the Varela Project, a signature gathering drive asking authorities for a referendum on laws to guarantee civil rights such as freedom of speech and Assembly.
Shortly before former US President Jimmy Carter`s visit to Cuba in May 2002, Paya delivered 11,020 signatures to the island`s Parliament seeking that initiative. He later delivered a second batch of petitions containing more than 14,000 signatures to the National Assembly, Cuba`s Parliament, posing a renewed challenge to the island`s socialist system.
The Varela Project was seen as the biggest nonviolent campaign to change the system the elder Castro established after the 1959 Cuban revolution.
(With Agency inputs)