Cuban Doctor Among Eight Honored at White House

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

President Bush yesterday aimed to shine a new spotlight on political repression and the dissident movement in Cuba, bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Oscar El¿as Biscet, 46, a prominent human rights activist who has been ailing in a Cuban jail since 2002.

"To the Cuban dictatorship, Dr. Biscet is a 'dangerous man.' He is dangerous in the same way that Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi were dangerous," Bush said in a ceremony at the White House, which also honored seven others. "His example is a rebuke to the tyrants and secret police of a regime whose day is passing."

Bush's remarks were his second strong reference since Oct. 29 to the turning point facing the Cuban government, with longtime President Fidel Castro ill and out of the public view since July 2006 and his brother Ra¿l Castro, the interim leader, consolidating his power for the post-Fidel era.

The Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honor a U.S. president can bestow. It was initiated in 1945 by President Harry S. Truman and reinstated by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 to recognize contributions to national security, the cause of peace and freedom, science, the arts, literature and other fields.

Jared Genser, president of Freedom Now, which works for the release of political prisoners, said Biscet, a physician, was first arrested for exposing Cuba's forced abortion policies. He found a way to survey abortions and published a study through an underground network.

When the government found out, he was fired and banned from practicing medicine, as was his wife Elsa, a nurse. Jeremy Zucker, chair of Freedom Now, said the family was thrown out of its home and forced to depend on the kindness of strangers.

After more than two dozen detentions and releases, Biscet was jailed again in 1997 for three years. Thirty-five days after that release, he was arrested one more time as he planned to enter a building to meet with other activists.

Biscet's son, Yan Vald¿s Morej¿n, and his daughter, Winnie Biscet, accepted the medal on their father's behalf. His wife, Elsa Morej¿n, was to watch the event broadcast by video satellite to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, her son said.

Yan Vald¿s Morej¿n said in an interview after the White House ceremony that he had seen his father being beaten by police on the occasion of his last arrest and that some of the dissidents arrested with him had resisted by refusing to move and shouting, "Long live human rights!"

Morej¿n, who said he last saw his father five years ago, said Biscet had stomach ailments and had lost about 40 pounds and all but eight of his teeth. During one period of his incarceration, he was moved from a 6-by-2-foot solitary cell to a larger holding cell with other inmates, he said, and was given nothing to eat for three weeks.

Yesterday afternoon, Morej¿n and members of the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights, which Biscet helped found, headed for the residence of Petr Kolar, ambassador of the Czech Republic.

Kolar congratulated Morej¿n and promised to use his contacts to make his father's release a reality "very soon."

"When that happens," the ambassador added, "it will be nice if you would bring your father to this embassy again to celebrate his freedom with a glass of champagne."

Other recipients of the Medal of Freedom included Gary S. Becker, who was recognized for extending the domain of economics to such fields as education, population and the structure of the family. Francis S. Collins was selected for his work on the Human Genome Project. Benjamin L. Hooks was honored as a pioneer of the civil rights movement.

Also honored were C-Span president Brian Lamb; Harper Lee, the author of "To Kill a Mockingbird"; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia; and Henry J. Hyde, a former Republican congressman from Illinois and one of the House managers of President Bill Clinton's impeachment, whose medal was accepted on his behalf by his son.

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