The remains of Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata were exhumed Tuesday at the request of his family, who plan to cremate his body and take the ashes to the United States.

Zapata's mother, Reina Luisa Tamayo, told Efe by telephone from the eastern town of Banes that she and three of her late son's colleagues witnessed the exhumation.

"It has been a very tough, very tough moment, but we have endured," she said, stressing that authorities have fully complied with her wishes.

Orlando Zapata was among the "Group of 75" dissidents jailed in March 2003 amid Cuba's harshest political crackdown in decades. He died in February 2010 after a lengthy hunger strike aimed at forcing the Cuban government to acknowledge his designation by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience.

President Raul Castro's unprecedented public expression of regret over Zapata's death did not stop an international outcry against the Cuban government.

In what could be seen as a response to the criticism, Castro launched in May 2010 a dialogue with the Cuban Catholic hierarchy that led to the release of more than 100 political prisoners, including all of the remaining Group of 75 members.

With the Catholic Church acting as intermediary, the Cuban government reached out last October to Zapata's family, offering them permission to emigrate.

A few months later, the U.S. government issued refugee visas for Zapata's mother and 12 other family members, but Reina Tamayo said she would not leave Cuba without her son's ashes.

The family will now travel to Havana for the cremation, Reina Tamayo told Efe.

She and a dozen relatives are set to leave on Thursday for Miami, where some in the large Cuban exile community say they plan to erect a monument to Orlando Zapata.