March 5, 1999

Cuban Exile Groups Protest Crackdown Against Pro-Democracy Activist

By Ian James

MIAMI - A coalition of Cuban exile groups joined forces Monday to protest a Cuban government crackdown during the trial of four prominent dissidents in Havana.

Scores of people, primarily pro-democracy activists, were detained by Cuban authorities as four people charged with sedition went on trial, said Ramon Saul Sanchez, head of the Miami exile group Democracy Movement.

The names of those detained were being compiled on a list and Sanchez said at least 70 people were detained on Monday and in the days leading up to the trial.

Another prominent exile group, the Cuban American National Foundation, said in a written statement that at least 42 activists had been detained. The true number was unavailable.

A press association not affiliated with any Cuban exile group also criticized the Cuban government's actions.

The Inter American Press Association, whose members include newspaper editors and publishers from around the Americas, said in a written statement that there had been a ``wave of arrests of independent journalists in Cuba.''

``Police have arrested at least eight independent journalists in the past three days,'' the association said in its statement.

The group called the action ``an unprecedented clamp-down'' on the island's unofficial press. In the statement, association President Jorge Fascetto called the government's actions unacceptable and warned that ``this new attack on independent journalists - and thus press freedom'' would bring repercussions.

Cuban President Fidel Cast-ro ``had better be aware that the international community is becoming increasingly less tolerant of abuse of the press and that this new outrage will reflect negatively on any future plan his government may have,'' said Fascetto, of the La Plata, Argentina, daily El Dia.

Cuban state security agents sometimes detain people temporarily to prevent discord, letting them go after a day or more without being charged.

Family members of the dissidents on trial said many of the defendants' supporters have been detained by security agents in recent days, apparently to prevent protests outside the court.

The four were arrested in July 1997 for criticizing a Communist Party document that they said did not present solutions to Cuba's severe economic problems.

The top defendant is Vladimiro Roca, a former military pilot and son of the late Cuban Communist Party leader Blas Roca. Also charged are lawyer Rene Gomez Manzano, engineer Felix Bonne and economist Marta Beatriz Roque.

Since the four were arrested, the government has passed a broadly worded law aimed at silencing dissidents who promote U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba. Those convicted can face up to 20 years in prison.

In Miami, leaders of more than a dozen exile groups who formed a so-called emergency coalition in support of the dissidents decried what they called an abuse of power at a news conference.

Sanchez, whose group joined the coalition, said the government's detention of dozens of opponents shows its weakness.

``These are obvious manifestations of the weakness of Fidel Castro's regime and of his fear that the world could understand that Cuba's crisis is not a problem between the people of Cuba and the people of other countries,'' Sanchez said. ``It is a problem between the people of Cuba and its dictatorship.''

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