Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ladies in White: Release Dissidents

Ladies in White

Mothers, wives urge Cuba to release dissidents

Tue Mar 17, 2009 7:48pm EDT

By Nelson Acosta

HAVANA (Reuters) - Mothers and wives of Cuban dissidents imprisoned since a March 2003 crackdown demanded their release on Tuesday, saying their loved ones were guilty only of loving their country.

The demand, in a letter from the group known as "Ladies in White" to President Raul Castro and former leader Fidel Castro, was issued a day before the sixth anniversary of the arrests of 75 activists and independent journalists in what has come to be known as Cuba's "black spring."

Of the 75, who received sentences from six to 28 years in jail, 21 were released early and 54 remain behind bars.

"We demand the immediate and unconditional freedom of our political prisoners," said the letter, read to journalists by Lauren Pollan, whose husband Hector Maseda is serving a 20-year sentence.

"We have arrived at the sixth anniversary of Cuba's black spring, and there remain in prison 54 men whose only crime has been to love their homeland and to peacefully struggle so Cuba can have a better future," the letter said.

Later in the day, about 30 of the women, dressed in white clothes as is their custom, attended a mass in a church in Central Havana. They were planning more events this week to mark the anniversary.

The Cuban Commission on Human Rights has estimated that Cuba has about 200 political prisoners.

The Cuban government views dissidents as mercenaries working for its arch-enemy, the United States.

Pollan said the Ladies in White, or "Damas de Blanco" in Spanish, also sent a letter to European Union Aid and Development Minister Louis Michel, who is visiting Cuba this week.

The 27-nation EU imposed diplomatic sanctions against Cuba after the crackdown, but they were ended last June with the proviso that Cuba's human rights situation will be reviewed annually.

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a letter to Michel on Tuesday that urged him to "ensure that the EU conditions for the improvement of human rights will be met" and to call for the Cuban government to release all journalists "unjustly imprisoned for exercising their basic human right to freedom of expression."

(Editing by Jeff Franks)

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