Cuban dissidents denounce break-up of protest

Fri Sep 28, 2007 HAVANA (AFP) - Cuban dissident leaders denounced Friday the police detention of 47 activists attempting to hold a street protest in Havana on behalf of political prisoners.

But prominent dissident Martha Beatriz Roque told AFP the government had detained and then released the activists to "minimize the international political cost" of its actions.

"Since last night they have been harassing people who came to take part in the activity, resulting up to now in 47 people being detained," Roque said in a statement, noting that she herself was whisked away from the protest.

"Fifteen state security agents and three police women forced me into a bus," Roque said in a press statement.

Two women belonging to the Women in White group -- wives of political prisoners -- and three others were taken away with her, and delivered to their homes, she said.

The arrests took place on Thursday and all but one of those held were released during the night, according to Elizardo Sanchez, who heads a human rights group Cuban authorities tolerate even though they consider it illegal.

Roque told AFP several people were roughed up upon their release.

Thursday's detentions came as several dozen people tried to participate in a small protest Roque led outside the Justice Ministry in Havana, dissidents said.

Roque said she and six others stood outside the ministry for six hours and handed over a letter demanding the release of political prisoners.

"Those who dare think differently than the government and are currently in prison must be released," the dissidents said in the letter addressed to Justice Minister Maria Esther Reus.

The letter also asked that political prisoners be treated "with dignity."

Roque said a crowd of about 100 government supporters gathered across the street to taunt the protesters, calling them "mercenaries" and "worms," terms the communist authorities use to describe foes of the one-party system.

An economist who has been twice jailed for her opposition to the ruling Communist Party, Roque said police eventually forced her and other protesters to leave the area, escorting them home.

The officer in charge told Roque that police were protecting her from "the wrath of the people," the activist said.

Roque told AFP the brief detention showed the government under the 14-month-old interim presidency of Raul Castro is attempting to "minimize the international political cost" of its actions.

"The government is desperate because of the image this presents abroad. But I think they prefer to have an international cost rather than a problem here," she said.

Roque said one of those detained Thursday, Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, was beaten by the officials who took him away. Perez was released in April after 17 years in prison for political offenses.

Thursday's arrests came two days after US President George W. Bush called for democratic change in Cuba, saying at the UN General Assembly in New York that "the long rule of a cruel dictator is nearing its end," a reference to the ailing, 81-year-old President Fidel Castro.

Cuba responded by saying the US administration lacked the moral authority to judge Cuba. In his address to the assembly, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque called the US leader an arrogant liar, lashing out at what he termed "the delirium tremens of the world's policeman."

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