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State Department Criticizes Cuba Over Arrests

The United States is expressing outrage over Cuba's arrest of dozens of people accused of being involved in an anti-government conspiracy led by the head of the U.S. diplomatic Interests Section in Havana. U.S. officials say the Fidel Castro government is using the chief U.S. diplomat and Cuban dissidents as scapegoats for its own failures.

In language reflecting a sharp downturn in U.S. relations with Cuba, the State Department says it is "outraged" by the arrests of the opposition figures, which it terms an "appalling act of intimidation" against those seeking freedom and democratic change on the communist-ruled island.

The comments here followed the round-up of several dozen Cuban dissidents who, state-run television in Havana said Tuesday, were being held for what were termed "provocations" and "subversive activities" allegedly fomented by the U.S. Interests Section chief, James Cason.

In a statement volunteered at the start of a news briefing in Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Cubans were arrested simply for speaking out, one of the basic and most recognized international human rights.

He called on Cuba to free them immediately, and for the international community to support the United States in demanding their release.

The Castro government has made no secret of its irritation over the activities of Mr. Cason, who assumed the post in Havana last September with a mandate to reach out to Cubans, and who has held unprecedented face-to-face meetings with opposition figures.

Spokesman Boucher says the attacks on the U.S. diplomat, and on those with whom he has met, are an effort by the Castro government to shift blame to others for its own failures.

"We do need to make clear that our representatives in Cuba are carrying our policy, are carrying out not just the foreign policy of the President but are carrying forth the values of the American people," he said. "And this should not be personalized in any way to them. I think our main concern, however, is that the Cuban government seems to be taking the failures of its regime and blaming these on people who point out those failures, who might have independent voices in talking about what's going on in Cuba.

Mr. Boucher said the arrests followed a Cuban government broadcast attacking Mr. Cason, and noted that the events coincide with the opening in Geneva of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, of which Cuba is a member.

The spokesman said the arrests "demonstrate again" that Cuba "is not fit" to be part of the commission, and called on the 53-nation organization to condemn the detentions in the strongest terms.

The Bush administration has sent a high-level delegation to the U.N. commission headed by former ambassador to the United Nations Jeanne Kirkpatrick, even though it objected strongly to the election as this year's commission chair of Libya, a country whose human rights record has been widely criticized.

Officials here say they will closely watch to see whether Libyan ambassador Najat al-Hajjaji conducts commission sessions in an objective manner.

Mr. Boucher termed Ms. al-Hajjaji's opening speech Tuesday criticizing U.S. Iraq policy "inappropriate," and questioned why she did not mention what he said was rape, torture and murder committed on a daily basis by Saddam Hussein's government.