Political dissident leaders in Havana say Cuba's communist government will begin summary trials on Thursday for more than 70 dissidents and independent journalists who were arrested in a government crackdown in March.

In a telephone interview with VOA from his home in Havana, Oswaldo Paya, director of the so-called Varela Project, said the summary trials are set to begin even though attorneys representing the accused dissidents have had insufficient time to prepare. He said the government will seek life sentences for at least a dozen of the accused.

Oswaldo Paya said the government will also seek sentences of 15-30 years for a number of other dissidents. Of those detained, Mr. Paya said 42 are associated with the Varela Project, which seeks constitutional changes to guarantee basic human rights such as freedom of speech and assembly, freedom to own and operate a business, freedom to form political parties, and freedom to take part in democratic elections.

Mr. Paya said it is possible that the Castro government chose this time to repress dissent because most of the world's attention is focused on the war in Iraq. If so, however, he says the attempt failed because there have been messages of condemnation from Europe, the United States, Canada, and other Latin American nations.

He said he and other dissidents who remain free intend to keep working for peaceful, democratic change in Cuba, despite the climate of fear that prevails. He said agents surround his house and watch his every movement, but he will not allow that to stop him.

Mr. Paya denied government charges that his group and others are financed and encouraged by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. He said they have never set foot in the U.S. mission and that their movement is entirely homegrown.

Cuban authorities say they have evidence that the dissidents are working closely with U.S. diplomats in a plot to undermine the government. They accuse the U.S. Chief of Mission in Havana, James Cason, of actively supporting opposition groups on the island.

The United States broke relations with Cuba's communist government in 1961, but established an interests section through the Swiss embassy in Havana in 1977. U.S. officials based in Havana have met with dissident leaders and offered them assistance in recent months, but U.S. diplomats deny this has been part of any conspiracy.

The Bush administration has condemned the crackdown in Cuba as have the European Union, international Human Rights organizations, and the Roman Catholic Church.