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Congress Focuses Attention on Cuban  Political Prisoners - 2002-05-08

U.S. lawmakers are again drawing attention to the plight of political prisoners in Cuba.

Sixteen members of the House and Senate have joined together in what is called the Congressional Cuban Political Prisoners Initiative to call attention to political prisoners in Cuba.

"Each of us, as members of Congress, have symbolically adopted a Cuban person who has been jailed for their love of freedom, and for their love of democracy," said Republican Congressman Chris Smith, a member of the House International Relations Committee. "Each month we will feature a new prisoner, each month we will a highlight a new name and a new life story, to strike down that big lie that there are no political prisoners in Cuba."

Congressman Smith said anyone in Cuba demanding respect and rights of freedom of expression and association are "brutalized, tortured and imprisoned."

At Wednesday's news conference, posters containing photographs of 12 Cuban political prisoners were displayed. They are among some 400 people human rights organizations say are jailed in Cuba for their political beliefs or activities.

Three former Cuban political prisoners, now democracy activists, appeared at the news conference. One of them is Maritza Lugo Fernandez, who was jailed 30 times in Cuba before being exiled earlier this year.

"The members of Congress who have adopted the political prisoners are sending a message to Cuba and the entire world," she said. "They are demonstrating that the political prisoners in Cuba, their family members, as well as the opposition, are not alone."

Maritza Lugo's husband is Rafael Ibarra Roque, who is serving a 20-year prison sentence in Cuba for promoting democracy.

Lawmakers are urging former president Jimmy Carter, who will soon visit Cuba, to raise human rights violations and political prisoners with President Fidel Castro, and to visit Cuban prisons. Congresswoman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida, said, "We urge the former president as we have done through repeated correspondence with him, to travel to the interior of the island to meet with the true dissidents, rather than with the regime-sponsored groups."

Former president Carter arrives in Cuba Sunday on a five-day visit at the invitation of President Castro. Officials at the Carter Center in Atlanta say they expect Mr. Carter to meet with human rights activists during his five-day stay.