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A prisoner on hunger strike dies of organ failure, other Cuban dissidents say

His hunger strike was in protest to his arrest for taking part in a demonstration

A court sentenced him to four years in prison in November

The death comes as the pope plans to visit Cuba before Easter

CNN  — 

A Cuban prisoner who went on hunger strike to protest his arrest for taking part in a demonstration died Thursday, according to other dissidents in the country.

Wilmar Villar Mendoza, 31, died in a hospital in Santiago after his kidneys and other organs failed, said Yoani Sanchez , a prominent Cuban blogger and advocate of press freedom in the country.

Sanchez said she had spoken with Villar Mendoza’s widow, Maritza, by telephone.

His death comes at an awkward time for President Raul Castro’s government: another prisoner died after going on a hunger strike earlier this month, and Pope Benedict is due to visit Cuba in the coming months.

A Cuban court sentenced Villar Mendoza to four years in prison in November, Sanchez said, a sentence he said he felt was unjust.

Villar Mendoza started his hunger strike following his sentencing, halting it briefly in December when the authorities said they would listen to his demand for his case to be reconsidered, Sanchez said.

Villar Mendoza’s death was confirmed by the wife of another dissident and by the head of an opposition research organization inside Cuba, who could not be identified for security reasons.

It happened just weeks after the death of another hunger striker, Rene Cobas, who began his protest because he was not part of the government’s recent mass pardon.

Cobas died of a heart attack on January 1 after authorities at the Boniato Prison, near Santiago, disregarded a doctor’s recommendation that he be moved to a provincial hospital, according to Elizardo Sanchez, who heads the island’s independent Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Cobas had gone on strike immediately after the president announced the latest round of amnesty on December 23. Cobas called the pardons “exclusive and limited,” Sanchez said.

The decision to release 2,900 prisoners followed “numerous requests” from their family members and religious institutions, and was a humanitarian gesture, Castro said last month.

He cited the upcoming visit of Pope Benedict as one of the motivations behind the move, which he said showed the “generosity and strength of the revolution.”

The pope has said he plans to visit Mexico and Cuba before Easter.

Among those were to be freed were prisoners over the age of 60, along with those who were sick, female or young with no previous criminal record.

With some exceptions, prisoners convicted of spying, terrorism, murder and drug trafficking would not be released.

In 2010, Castro agreed to free 52 prisoners who had been arrested during a 2003 crackdown on political dissidents.

That pardon was prompted by the death of a jailed dissident, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, following an 80-day hunger strike protesting inmate conditions.

CNN’s Catherine Shoichet contributed to this report.