HAVANA, Jan 14 (Reuters) - Twenty-four patients in Havana's main mental hospital died of hypothermia this week, a Cuban human rights group said on Thursday, in what it called an act of negligence.
Elizardo Sanchez, spokesman for the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights, said the patients were not properly protected from temperatures that dipped into the low 40s (about 5 or 6 Celsius) during an unusual, extended cold snap on the tropical island.
"The people were not covered up and many windows and doors at the hospital are broken, so they were not protected," he told Reuters. "Many of these patients are incapacitated and they cannot care for themselves."
He called the deaths "unprecedented" in Cuba and accused the Cuban government of "criminal negligence."
Sanchez, a frequent critic of the Cuban government, said there were "growing signs of deterioration in the national health system," including run-down facilities and shortages of medicines.
A spokesman for the government said he had not heard of the report, but that it sounded unlikely, given the "high quality of the hospital and the source of the information."
He said it was not unusual for people to die in hospitals and it was more likely the patients died of other causes.
Cuba provides free universal health care for its citizens and prides itself on having a strong system, despite its economic problems.
Cubans complain that some facilities are not in good condition, but the Cuban government says many of its problems arise from its inability to get medical equipment and medicines due to the longstanding U.S. trade embargo against the Communist-led island.
(Reporting by Jeff Franks; Editing by Stacey Joyce)