Cuba sentences dissidents to 15 to 25 years
By Anthony Boadle
HAVANA, April 7 (Reuters) - Communist Cuba sentenced seven dissidents charged with opposing President Fidel Castro to 15 to 25 years in prison in the toughest political crackdown in decades.
In a clear message to the Bush administration that Cuba will not tolerate its efforts to build up a dissident movement on the island, a court convicted seven people of "working with a foreign power to undermined the government" and gave them prison sentences that ranged from 15 to 25 years.
Seventy-one other people are also charged but their trials are not yet complete.
Despite the tough sentences, the Havana Province Tribunal rejected prosecutors' requests for life sentences for leading dissident Hector Palacios and Ricardo Gonzalez, editor of Cuba's only dissident magazine, their wives said. Palacios was sentenced to 25 years and Gonzalez to 20 years.
Cuba's best known opposition writer, poet and journalist, 57-year-old Raul Rivero, was sentenced to 20 years in jail.
"This is so arbitrary for a man whose only crime is to write what he thinks," his wife Blanca Reyes told reporters after the sentence was given behind closed doors. "What they found on him was a tape recorder, not a grenade."
In other sentences on Monday, economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe got 20 years,Hector Maseda 20 years, Osvaldo Alfonso 18 years and Marcelo Lopez 15 years.
The crackdown began on March 18 with arrests and house searches. That was followed last week by one-day trials in court rooms filled with Communist Party members and security agents while only three close relatives of the prisoners could attend, the wives said.
Government informants who had infiltrated dissident groups testified against the prisoners.
"The trial was unfair. He met his lawyer five minutes before it started and had no time to study the charges," said Claudia Marquez, wife of Osvaldo Alfonso. She said the court reduced Alfonso's sentence from a life term sought by prosecutors because he accepted the charges and said in court that he had been manipulated by U.S. diplomats.
The wives have three days to appeal, but said they were not hopeful the sentences could be shortened.
"These terms were dictated by President Castro. In Cuba there is only one voice," said Reyes.
WORLD CRITICISM OF TRIALS
Western diplomats and foreign journalists were barred from the trials, which were criticized in Europe. The U.S. State Department said the dissidents were being tried in "kangaroo courts."
International human rights organizations accused Castro of trying to knock out his political opponents while world attention was focused on Baghdad.
Half of the 78 dissidents on trial had organized a signature drive to petition for reforms to Cuba's one-party socialist state. The effort was known as the Varela Project, which united Cuba's small, divided dissident movement into the first major internal challenge to Castro's rule in four decades.
The Bush administration stepped up active support for the dissidents, who would meet in the residence of the top U.S. diplomat in Havana, James Cason.
Castro, in power since a 1959 revolution, denounced Cason last month for turning the American mission into an "incubator of counterrevolution" and threatened to close the U.S. Interests Section. Havana and Washington do not have formal diplomatic relations.
U.S. diplomats were surprised to learn that Manuel David Orrio, who had led a meeting of opposition journalists at Cason's house last month, testified against Rivero and said in court testimony that he was a state security agent.
Prosecutors have asked for life sentences for dissident economist Martha Beatriz Roque; opposition labor activist Pedro Pablo Alvarez; and civil disobedience advocate Oscar Elias Biscet. Those sentences are expected on Tuesday.
The trials went virtually unnoticed in Cuba. There was no mention in Cuba's state-run media and few Cubans were aware of the dissident round-up.
"The social and economic decay in Cuba is so great and the government knows there is widespread discontent," said Miriam Leiva, a former diplomat who lost her job and was expelled from the Communist Party in 1992 for not divorcing her dissident husband Espinosa Chepe.
"That is why the sentences are so harsh, to repress people calling for change and intimidate others," she said.
8 April 2003
CUBA SOLIDARITY - 1
While the world is looking elsewhere, Comrade Fidel's idyllic socialist utopia has gaoled the core of its critical democratic intelligentsia. Here's Reuters' report today: there's more to come on this.
Posted by Paul Anderson at 00:59