April 29, 2011 / 8:57 PM / 9 years ago

Cuba hunger strikers seek release of jailed U.S. man

* Dissidents say they have refused medical aid

* Say support of Gross is based on human rights

* Both have anti-Fidel Castro tattoos

HAVANA, April 29 (Reuters) - Two obscure Cuban dissidents who sewed their mouths partially shut and launched a hunger strike a month ago said on Friday they were prepared to die for their demands, which include freedom for jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross and improved human rights.

Vladimir Alejo Miranda, 48, and Angel Enrique Fernandez Rivero, 45, said they had refused medical aid and would not go to a hospital as their condition weakened.

“Until there’s a response in favor of us, of the opposition, in favor of Mr. Alan Gross, we are not going to lift the strike,” Alejo told Reuters from a bed at his home in the Havana suburbs.

“If we have to give our life for this demand, we are going to give our lives. We will be a new Orlando Zapata Tamayo,” he said, referring to an imprisoned dissident whose death by hunger strike last year provoked international condemnation of the Cuban government.

Gross, 61, is serving a 15-year sentence imposed last month by a Cuban court for helping Cuban opposition groups set up Internet access.

He was in Cuba under a secretive U.S. program aimed at promoting political change on the communist-led island. He has an appeal of his sentence pending before Cuba’s highest court.

Fernandez said they had taken up Gross’ cause “because we are defenders of human rights, no matter from which country is the person unjustly jailed in Cuba.”

“His only crime was to bring cell phones, computer equipment and laptops to help Cubans,” he said.

Gross’ imprisonment has frozen a brief warming in U.S.-Cuba relations under U.S. President Barack Obama.

Fernandez said they were visited by a lower ranking police officer who told them Gross was imprisoned because he was a terrorist who was a descendant of Muslims.

The two men have their mouths crudely sown partially shut, but they can speak and drink liquids through a straw. They appear weakened and remained prostrate during the interview.

Alejo’s crumbling home in a humble neighborhood is painted with anti-government political slogans and the men have tattoos proclaiming former Cuban leader Fidel Castro a murderer.

Fernandez said he was once imprisoned for his tattoo.

Elizardo Sanchez of the independent Cuban Commission of Human Rights said his group was prepared to help the two men, but does not support hunger strikes “except in extreme cases.”

He said other Cuban dissidents had not lent their support to the two men yet because they were not well known and because their demand for Alan Gross’ freedom was not “so attractive” as other causes.

Reporting by Jeff Franks, Nelson Acosta and Rosa Tania Valdes; Editing by Paul Simao

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