Cuba Seeks Life Sentences for Dissidents

.c The Associated Press

HAVANA (AP) - Cuba is seeking life sentences for at least 10 of the dissidents jailed in the largest crackdown in years aimed at extinguishing all government opposition, the island's best-known rights activist said Wednesday.

A total of 78 dissidents have been arrested since March 18, accused of working with U.S. diplomats to subvert Fidel Castro's government and being mercenaries in the pay of Washington.

Prosecutors are seeking life sentences for 10 of them, including opposition political leaders Osvaldo Alfonso Valdes and Hector Palacios, independent journalist Ricardo Gonzalez and dissident economist Marta Beatriz Roque, said human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez.

The trials, expected to be quick, are scheduled to begin Thursday in at least four different Havana courthouses, he said.

``This is a bad year for Cuba,'' said Sanchez, whose group regularly reports to international organizations about the island's human rights situation and political prisoners.

A three-page list compiled by Sanchez's Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation listed recommended sentences ranging from 15 years to life for the defendants.

The information was gathered from and confirmed by relatives of each defendant, Sanchez said.

According to the list, prosecutors are seeking 20 years for Raul Rivero, the best known of Cuba's independent journalists and a delegate to the regional Inter-American Press Association.

The Cuban government has provided no information about the trials and it was unknown if international journalists would be granted access.

Authorities here have accused the arrested of being traitors and mercenaries for the U.S. government.

In Washington, Robert Zimmerman, spokesman for the State Department's Latin America bureau, called the trials a travesty.

The Cubans ``are being tried for exercising their rights of freedom of expression and association,'' he said.

Accusations that the detainees engaged in treason and are mercenaries ``only show repressive nature of the Castro regime and its fear of any sign of opposition to its ironclad rule,'' he said.

He called the plan to try the dissidents ``an appalling act of intimidation against those seeking freedom and democratic change on the island.''

The crackdown began when Cuban officials criticized the head of the American mission in Havana, James Cason, for his active support of the island's opposition.

Castro himself was enraged by Cason's public meetings with dissidents at their homes and his open criticism of the regime to international reporters.

The roundup followed several years of relative government tolerance for the opposition. During that time, the opposition grew stronger, more organized and more daring.

Gonzalez, an arrested journalist, launched the island's first independent general interest magazine. Other activists gathered signatures for an initiative seeking a referendum on new laws guaranteeing civil rights such as freedom of speech and assembly.

The arrested 78 people included independent journalists, directors of non-governmental libraries, members of opposition political parties and volunteers for the Varela Project, the pro-democracy petition drive.

The crackdown was condemned by international human rights and press organizations.

Parliament speaker Ricardo Alarcon said Monday that authorities had sufficient evidence to try the dissidents, adding that most nations had laws ``to defend their sovereignty.''