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Cuba crackdown

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Posted on Wed, Apr. 02, 2003

Cuba seeking life terms for at least 10 dissidents in crackdown
Associated Press

HAVANA - In a move aimed at ripping Cuba's growing opposition out by its roots, prosecutors are seeking life sentences for at least 10 of 78 dissidents jailed in the most brutal crackdown on government critics in recent years, a leading island activist said Wednesday.

Opposition political leaders Osvaldo Alfonso Valdes and Hector Palacios, independent journalist Ricardo Gonzalez and dissident economist Marta Beatriz Roque are among those for whom prosecutors are seeking life behind bars, activist Elizardo Sanchez said.

The trials are expected to be quick and are scheduled to begin Thursday in at least four different courthouses in Havana, he said.

"This is a bad year for Cuba," said Sanchez, who estimated that the government is seeking more than 900 years for the group at large.

A three-page list compiled by Sanchez's Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation listed recommended sentences that ranged from 15 years to life for all 78 defendants. The information was gathered from and confirmed by relatives of each defendant, Sanchez said.

According to the list, prosecutors are seeking 20 years behind bars for Raul Rivero, the best known of Cuba's independent journalists and a delegate to the regional Inter-American Press Association.

The Cuban government has provided no information about the trials and it was unknown if international journalists would be granted access. Authorities here have accused those arrested in the roundup of being traitors and mercenaries in the pay of the U.S. government.

In Washington, Robert Zimmerman, spokesman for the State Department's Latin America bureau, called the trials a travesty.

Among other reasons, he said, "the Cubans who have been arrested are being tried for exercising their rights of freedom of expression and association."

Furthermore, he said, the accusations that the detainees engaged in treason and that they are mercenaries "only show repressive nature of the Castro regime and its fear of any sign of opposition to its ironclad rule."

Zimmerman reaffirmed the U.S. view that Cuba's plan to try its dissidents is "an appalling act of intimidation against those seeking freedom and democratic change on the island."

The crackdown, the roughest in recent years, was launched on March 18 when Cuban officials mounted an attack on the head of the American mission in Havana, James Cason, for his active support of the island's opposition.

Fidel Castro's government was enraged by Cason's public meetings with dissidents at their homes and his open criticism of the regime in his comments to international reporters.

The roundup followed several years of relative government tolerance for the opposition, which during that time grew stronger, more organized, and more daring.

Gonzalez, for instance, launched the island's first independent general interest magazine. Other activists gathered signatures for an initiative seeking a referendum on new laws that would guarantee civil rights such as freedom of speech and assembly.

Those arrested included independent journalists, directors of non-governmental libraries, members of opposition political parties and volunteers for the Varela Project, the pro-democracy petition drive.

Communist officials accuse the jailed dissidents of working with American diplomats here to subvert Castro's government.

The roundup was immediately condemned by international human rights and press organizations. The Bush administration denounced the arrests as "an appalling act of intimidation."

Parliament speaker Ricardo Alarcon said Monday that authorities had sufficient evidence to bring the dozens of dissidents to trial, adding that most nations had laws "to defend their sovereignty."

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