Jailed Cuban dissidents' relatives vow to fight on

Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - Wives and women relatives of 59 imprisoned Cuban dissidents promised to fight on for their men's release on Sunday, four years after they were jailed on charges of conspiring with the United States.

Around 50 members of the group, which calls itself the Ladies in White, marched along the main avenue of the upscale Havana district of Miramar and called for March 18th to be named International Prisoner of Conscience Day in honor of their loved ones.

Five members of Italy's Radical Party, including a national parliament member and a European Parliament deputy, joined the women, holding a banner that read "freedom and no violence for Cuba."

It was the first time in decades a group of foreign activists had joined a dissident protest in Cuba, local observers said.

"We are democracy and human right activists and came here to ask for the prisoners to be released," said European Parliament member Marco Cappato.

On March 18, 2003, Cuba began arresting 75 opponents and sentenced them to long prison terms after summary trials. Sixteen of the dissidents, including the only woman, have since been released for health reasons.

The women have dressed in white to attend church services in Miramar and then march 10 blocks every Sunday since the arrests in unprecedented defiance of the Communist-run government.

"So long as there is a single prisoner of conscience the Ladies in White will be here fighting for their freedom," said spokeswoman Laura Pollan.

"Amnesty International declared all of them prisoners of conscience and in their honor March 18 should be named International Prisoner of Conscience Day," she said.

On Saturday, Ladies in White staged a 12-hour fast, taking turns sitting in a makeshift jail cell they constructed in an Havana apartment, then marched through the streets of the city holding flowers and handing out white ribbons.

Pollan said the group planned four days of protest to mark the four years since the arrests, despite warnings by authorities.

The Cuban government brands all opponents mercenaries in the employ of the United States.

Local human rights organizations put the number of political prisoners in Cuba at around 300.
© Reuters 2006. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content, including by caching, framing or similar means, is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters. Reuters and the Reuters sphere logo are registered trademarks and trademarks of the Reuters group of companies around the world.
Reuters journalists are subject to the Reuters Editorial Handbook which requires fair presentation and disclosure of relevant interests.