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Human Rights Groups Condemn Sentences in Cuba - 2003-04-08

In Cuba, the first in a series of trials of political dissidents ended Monday with sentences from 15 to 25 years imposed on several well-known opposition figures. Human rights groups worldwide are condemning the summary trials as acts of government repression.

The best known of the dissidents tried, convicted and sentenced on Monday were Raul Rivero, a poet and independent journalist, and Hector Palacios, the leader of an opposition political party. The court gave Mr. Palacios a 25-year sentence. Prosecutors had asked for a life sentence. Mr. Rivero received a 20-year sentence.

The two men are part of a group of 78 whom the communist government has accused of collaborating with U.S. diplomats to undermine the rule of President Fidel Castro.

Family members of the convicted men have told international reporters in Havana that the charges are false and that all the dissident leaders seek are basic freedoms like freedom of speech and assembly. They said the dissidents have sought reform in Cuba through peaceful means. The wife of Raul Rivero, Blanca Reyes, said police searching their home found "a recorder, not a grenade."

Several attempts by VOA to contact human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez by telephone from Mexico were interrupted by a loud tone on the line.

In comments to other reporters on the island, Mr. Sanchez has called the roundup of dissidents and this week's trials in his words, "the worst wave of repression in Cuba's history." He described the accused dissidents as "prisoners of conscience."

Foreign diplomats and reporters were barred from observing the trials, which have been condemned by the U.S. State Department as "kangaroo courts," meaning sham proceedings in which the verdict has been determined before the trial begins. Family members of the accused say the attorneys who were to represent them in court had no time to prepare a defense and, in some cases, met with their clients for only a few minutes before the trial began.

The main witness for the prosecution reportedly was a man working undercover for the government who attended some dissident meetings. The government claims the dissidents have received support and direction from U.S. diplomats in Havana. The U.S. government broke relations with Cuba in 1961, but it is represented in Havana by an interests section under the Swiss embassy. U.S. diplomats admit having met with dissidents, but deny having conspired with them to undermine the communist system.

Human rights groups accuse the Castro government of using the war in Iraq as a smokescreen to launch the crackdown on dissent. Among the organizations condemning the Cuban government's actions are Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Roman Catholic Church. Governments in Europe and Latin America have also condemned the crackdown.