Relatives and Cuban human rights group try to find out how government critic died while in police custody

Relatives and a Cuban human rights group investigate into how a government critic died while in police custody last month.

Manuel Acosta, a 47-year-old former boxer and member of a dissident group known as Democracy Movement, was arrested June 21 in the town of Aguada de Pasajeros on vague charges of criminality, according to a letter signed by his cousin, Pedro Larena.

Police held Acosta at a municipal station where he was found dead three days later, according to the letter distributed to international journalists by a dissident human rights group. Authorities told Acosta's relatives that he hung himself in his cell, and that an autopsy confirmed suicide.

But Larena indicated he became suspicious after officials refused to turn over Acosta's remains, saying they needed at least 60 days to process them.

Larena said he was afraid to provide further details, but spoke by telephone through an intermediary. He said a cleaning lady working at the station told family members that while in custody, Acosta yelled anti-government slogans and insults at police, provoking a fight with an officer.

During the altercation, the witnesses said, the officer's watch was broken, prompting a group of police to swarm in from their nearby living quarters and beat Acosta.

Copies of Larena's letter were sent to international journalists by Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

In the letter addressed to Raul Castro, Cuba's acting president and defense minister, Larena asked that investigators interview "10 or 12 police, including officers," as well as inmates at the police station at the time. He did not say what he believed his cousin's cause of death to be, but asked authorities to conduct a "thorough investigation."

Acosta "died under circumstances that are very unclear at least," Sanchez said by phone.

Cuban government press officials could not be reached for comment. Havana tolerates, but does not recognize dissident groups like Sanchez's and rarely comments on their charges.

Larena and Sanchez acknowledged that they could not provide concrete evidence of the circumstances of Acosta's death, but said the matter was complicated due to the fact authorities are still holding his body.

He said Acosta was separated from his wife and estranged from his son, but that Larena signed the letter for the entire family.