Cuban dissident leader free after brief detention

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By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ, Associated Press

HAVANA (AP) — One of Cuba's leading dissidents said Monday that she was released hours after being detained ahead of a weekly protest, but her husband was apparently still being held.

Bertha Soler, leader of the Ladies in White opposition group, said authorities have also warned her not to spoil Pope Benedict XVI's visit next week.

She said she and three dozen supporters were taken into custody early Sunday when they tried to reach a Havana church to protest. About 30 more who arrived at the church were detained when they tried to march down streets where they don't normally demonstrate.

Soler said most of the demonstrators were freed by late Sunday, but others were held overnight. She said she had not heard from her husband, Angel Moya, another anti-government activist who was arrested Sunday.

The detentions capped a tense week in which little-known government opponents occupied another Havana church for two days in an attempt to shine the spotlight on human rights ahead of the pope's March 26-28 trip.

The Ladies in White walk through a western Havana neighborhood each Sunday after Mass to press the government to free prisoners jailed for politically motivated crimes. They also demand political change on the island ruled for 53 years by Fidel and Raul Castro.

The Cuban government considers all dissidents to be common criminals and troublemakers financed by Washington to harm the communist-run government. Authorities have been quiet about the weekend arrests, and did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last spring, Cuba released the last of 75 government opponents imprisoned in a 2003 crackdown on dissent. Amnesty International no longer recognizes any inmates in Cuba as "prisoners of conscience," though some are behind bars for politically inspired crimes that were violent in nature.

Soler said authorities warned the Ladies to stay away from Benedict's public events in Havana and the eastern city of Santiago.

"Even if we are unable to meet with the Holy Father ... we will go to his Mass in Santiago de Cuba as well as the one here in Havana, whatever the cost," Soler said. Cuban dissidents have asked for an audience with the pontiff, but the Vatican has said Benedict has no plans to alter his schedule, which is limited due to his advanced age.

The Roman Catholic Church has usually mediated for Cuban dissidents, but tensions have risen since last week's occupation of the church in central Havana. The protesters demanded the pope raise their concerns with Cuban officials.

Police raided the church Thursday at the request of Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega. The protesters were not jailed, but received a stern warning.

More than 100 government opponents were briefly detained across the country over the weekend, according to Elizardo Sanchez, who monitors the human rights situation in Cuba and acts as a de facto spokesman for the opposition.

"The government is creating a climate not at all favorable for the visit by Benedict," Sanchez said. "I think it is having an impact. Vatican diplomacy will take note."

A church spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In Washington, the State Department called the detentions a "reprehensible" violation of democratic principles and urged Benedict to address human rights in conversations with Cuban authorities.

"One would hope and expect that this would be the kind of thing that would be raised in the context of such a visit," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

On Monday morning, Soler appeared at the home of the late Ladies in White co-founder Laura Pollan, which the group uses as a base of operations. She said the protesters were told the wide Havana thoroughfare where they hold their weekly post-Mass demonstrations would be off-limits. It was not clear, however, whether such a restriction would stretch past the pope's visit.

"They warned us that the space they had given us on Quinta Avenida was going to end, that we were not going to be able to go to (the church) any more," Soler said. "That is something we are not going to respect, because it is our right ... nobody can take that away."

Also Monday, an orchestra and choir rehearsed performances planned to accompany Benedict's Mass at Havana's sprawling Plaza of the Revolution.

Works by Handel, Mozart and Cuban composer Alfredo Levy are among those on the bill, choir director Jaquelin Ramirez said.

Construction is nearly complete on a giant stage brightly painted in the yellow and white of the Vatican.

"It is an honor to be here. We belong to a professional choir and opportunities like this come along only once in a lifetime," singer Eduardo Vega said.

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