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March 20, 2003



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Yahoo! March 20, 2003.

Cuba's sweep of dissidents intensifies with at least 55 detained

By Andrea Rodriguez, Associated Press Writer

HAVANA, 20 (AP) - Cuban dissidents reacted with anger as Fidel Castro's government Thursday arrested more activists it accuses of being traitors and vowed to put them on trial in the country's harshest crackdown on dissent in years.

State security agents picked up several opposition members at the home where they were conducting a high-profile liquid fast to demand the release of a leading political prisoner.

The arrests raised the number of detentions during three days of sweeps on government opponents to at least 55, the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights and Reconciliation said. The group was trying to verify reports of at least 15 other arrests.

Relatives of Marta Beatriz Roque confirmed she was among a small group of people detained around 6 a.m. (1000 GMT) in a home where dissidents began the fast on March 11. The identities and the exact number of those detained with her were uncertain.

The group had vowed to consume only yogurt, soup and juices until a well-known dissident, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, was released from jail. Biscet was imprisoned in December during a protest.

Yoel Alfonso, a nephew of Beatriz Roque, said some 30 security agents searched their Havana home early Thursday for more than two hours, seizing books, a typewriter, and a fax machine along with papers.

She said the search was carried out peacefully, and officers told her Beatriz would be carried to a Havana jail.

Human rights advocates said the detentions signaled a widening crackdown on Castro's political opponents that began Tuesday after the government accused them of being traitors and conspiring with American diplomats in Cuba.

"It's clear the repression has extended," said Elizardo Sanchez, a leading activist.

More than a dozen of those arrested are independent journalists and press groups around the world have condemned their detention.

In Washington, Eduardo Bertoni of the Organization of American States said the detentions were a violation of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.

The detentions come amid a sharp deterioration in relations between Washington and Havana, which has repeatedly criticized the Bush administration for encouraging dissent on the Caribbean island.

The Cuban government accused dozens of dissidents of being linked to Washington's chief diplomat in Havana, James Cason, who has repeatedly met in public with opposition leaders in what he says is an effort to encourage democracy on the island.

In announcing the first arrests this week, the Cuban government also said it was restricting travel on the island by American diplomats.

Cuba has said it will put dissidents on trial, and opposition activists here fear those arrested will be tried under the three-year-old "Law against National Independence," which mandates up to 10-year prison sentences and makes it a crime to publish "subversive" materials.

That includes materials distributed by the U.S. Interest Section, books and pamphlets that promote American culture, democracy and human rights. The section also distributes shortwave radios.

Cuba's communist government maintains it holds no political prisoners, only common criminals, and generally characterizes dissidents as "counterrevolutionaries."

The precise number of members belonging to organized opposition groups is unknown, but they are believed to be in the hundreds.

Amid the increased tensions, a Cuban airliner carrying 31 passengers and crew was hijacked at knifepoint Wednesday night and landed under U.S. military escort in Key West, Florida.

The six alleged hijackers were detained and faced federal air piracy charges in the incident, which appeared unrelated to the crackdown.

Cuba demands return of hijacked plane, hijackers, crew and passengers

By Anita Snow, Associated Press Writer

HAVANA, 20 (AP) - Cuba demanded Thursday that U.S. officials immediately return a Cuban passenger plane that was hijacked and diverted to Florida and hand over the passengers and crew on board.

In a diplomatic note delivered Thursday morning to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and to the U.S. State Department in Washington, the Cuban Foreign Ministry also demanded that American authorities provide it with detailed information about the hijacking Wednesday night.

The hijacking "constitutes a crime, precisely typified as an act of terrorism in various international conventions signed by Cuba and the United States," said a government statement distributed by the International Press Center.

Six men, some armed with knives, took control of the plane late Wednesday as it headed to Havana from Cuba's Isle of Youth. The twin-engine Douglas DC-3 landed under U.S. military escort at the Key West International Airport, the FBI said.

Four of the crew members were restrained with tape and rope and the pilots were ordered to fly to Key West, said Judy Orihuela, an FBI spokeswoman in Miami.

The six crew members and 25 passengers, including five children, were being held at a federal detention center near Miami and being questioned by U.S. authorities.

It was not known whether any of the passengers and crew had requested asylum in the United States, but Cubans are generally allowed to remain if they ask to.

The six alleged hijackers were being held at a county jail in Florida and were expected to be arraigned on federal hijacking charges, said Orihuela.

Jacqueline Becerra, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, said the United States has jurisdiction to prosecute the men under air piracy laws because the plane was taken to the United States.

The Cuban government statement complained that U.S. officials have failed to prosecute other hijackings in the past.

In most other such cases, however, the hijackers have been the pilots themselves of the diverted craft. This was the first case in several years of a pilot being violently forced to divert a plane or boat by armed hijackers.

The plane was on a regularly scheduled flight from Nueva Gerona to Havana, according to Leonardo Pena, a Cuban civil aviation official. The Isle of Youth is about 85 miles (135 kilometers) south-southwest of Havana and about 185 miles (300 kilometers) south-southwest of Key West.

Pena did not know who owned the plane. Florida officials said it was owned by a company called Aerotaxi.

Cuba Continues Crackdown on Dissidents

By Kevin Gray, Associated Press Writer. Thu Mar 20,12:24 PM ET

HAVANA - U.S. officials and Cuban dissidents reacted with anger as Fidel Castro's government arrested more activists it accuses of being traitors and vowed to put them on trial in the country's harshest crackdown on dissent in years.

State security agents picked up several opposition members early Thursday at the home where they were conducting a high-profile liquid fast to demand the release of a leading political prisoner.

Relatives of well-known opponent Marta Beatriz Roque confirmed that she was among a small group of people detained around 6 a.m. in a home where dissidents began the protest on March 11. The identities and the exact number of those detained with her were uncertain.

The group had vowed to consume only liquids — including yogurt, soup and juices — until fellow dissident Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet was released. Biscet was jailed in a protest in nearby Matanzas Province in December.

The non-governmental Cuban Commission on Human Rights and Reconciliation confirmed early Thursday that at least 55 people had been arrested. It also was investigating reports of at least 15 more.

Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and Reconciliation, called the opposition roundup "the most intense repression in recent years."

The detentions come amid a sharp deterioration in relations between Washington and Havana, which has repeatedly criticized the Bush administration for encouraging dissent on the Caribbean island.

Amid the increased tensions, a Cuban airliner carrying 31 passengers and crew was hijacked at knifepoint Wednesday night and landed under U.S. military escort in Key West, Fla. The six alleged hijackers were detained and faced federal air piracy charges in the incident, which appeared unrelated to the crackdown.

Cuba's government accuses the dissidents who were detained of being linked to Washington's top diplomat in Havana, James Cason, who during his six months on the island has met publicly with opposition members. Last week, he allowed dissident journalists to use his official residence for a meeting.

Cason has defended his actions as attempts to promote democracy and human rights on the Caribbean island.

But following days of sharp criticism from Cuban officials, the government reacted on Tuesday night by announcing an opening round of arrests and restricting the movements of U.S. diplomats based here.

An official statement accused the dissidents of "being directly linked to the conspiratorial activities" led by the U.S. mission.

"They have been arrested by the appropriate authorities and will be turned over to the courts of justice," the statement said of the dissidents.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher expressed outrage over the arrests, calling it an "appalling act of intimidation against those who seek freedom and democratic change in Cuba."

"These people have been arrested for simply speaking out, one of the most basic internationally accepted human rights," Boucher said.

In similar roundups in the past, many of those picked up have been released after a few hours or days without formal charges.

Opposition activists fear that those arrested will be tried under the much-criticized, but never-yet-applied "Law against National Independence," which carries sentences of up to 10 years.

The law passed in February 1999 made it a crime to publish "subversive" materials provided by the U.S. government.

The U.S. Interests Section in Cuba distributes shortwave radios and a wide range of books and pamphlets throughout the communist country with the stated purpose of promoting American culture, democracy and human rights.

The island's best known activists, including Oswaldo Paya — the top organizer of the Varela Project reform effort — were left alone.

At least a dozen of those rounded up were independent journalists, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

Under the new travel restrictions imposed by the Cuban government, U.S. diplomats must get prior approval to travel outside a 434-square-mile area that includes the capital of Havana.

Previously, U.S. diplomats had to notify Cuban officials when they traveled outside the Havana region, but no advance approval was necessary.

Washington last week imposed similar travel restrictions on Cuban diplomats in the United States.

Cuba Says Will Put Dissidents on Trial

By Kevin Gray, Associated Press Writer. Thu Mar 20, 2:18 AM ET

HAVANA - U.S. officials and Cuban dissidents reacted with anger as Fidel Castro (news - web sites)'s government arrested more activists and vowed to put them on trial in the country's harshest crackdown on dissent in years.

As tensions with the United States increased, a Cuban airliner carrying 29 passengers was hijacked at knifepoint Wednesday night and landed under U.S. military escort in Key West, Fla. The six hijackers were detained and faced federal air piracy charges.

At least 46 dissidents have been detained in a two-day operation by Cuban state security agents, human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez said. He said arrests of anti-government activists were continued Wednesday night.

The detentions come amid a sharp deterioration in relations between Washington and Havana, which has repeatedly criticized the Bush administration for encouraging dissent on the Caribbean island.

The government accuses the dissidents of being linked to Washington's top diplomat in Havana, James Cason, who during his six months on the island has met publicly with opposition members. In one such appearance last week, he allowed dissident journalists to use his official residence for a meeting.

Cason has defended his actions as attempts to promote democracy and human rights on the Caribbean island.

But following days of sharp criticism from Cuban officials, the government reacted on Tuesday night by announcing an opening round of arrests and restricting the movements of U.S. diplomats based here.

An official statement read on state-controlled television Tuesday night accused the dissidents of "being directly linked to the conspiratorial activities" led by the U.S. mission.

"They have been arrested by the appropriate authorities and will be turned over to the courts of justice," the statement said of the dissidents.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher expressed outrage over the arrests, calling it an "appalling act of intimidation against those who seek freedom and democratic change in Cuba."

"These people have been arrested for simply speaking out, one of the most basic internationally accepted human rights," Boucher said.

In similar roundups in the past, many of those picked up have been released after a few hours or days without formal charges.

Opposition activists here fear that those arrested will be tried under the much-criticized, but never-yet-applied "Law against National Independence," which carries sentences of up to 10 years.

The law passed in February 1999 made it a crime to publish "subversive" materials provided by the U.S. government.

Veteran human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez called it "the most intense repression in recent years."

The U.S. Interests Section here distributes shortwave radios and a wide range of books and pamphlets throughout Cuba with the stated purpose of promoting American culture, democracy and human rights.

The island's best known activists, including Oswaldo Paya — the top organizer of the Varela Project reform effort — were left alone.

At least a dozen of those rounded up were independent journalists, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

On Wednesday night, assailants hijacked a Douglas DC-3 bound for Havana from Nueva Gerona, the main city on the small Isle of Youth, U.S. authorities said.

Air Force fighter jets from Homestead Air Force Base and a Black Hawk helicopter from the Customs Service intercepted the Douglas DC-3 as it approached Key West, where it landed at 8:06 p.m. The hijackers surrendered.

There were no immediate reports of injuries among the hijackers, passengers or six crew members. Five of the passengers were minors, an airport spokesman said.

The passengers were being interviewed by U.S. authorities. It was unclear if any had requested asylum or if the hijacking was related to the arrests of dissidents.

Under the new travel restrictions imposed by the Cuban government, U.S. diplomats must get prior approval to travel outside a 434-square-mile area that includes the capital of Havana. Previously, U.S. diplomats had to notify Cuban officials when they traveled outside the Havana region, but no advance approval was necessary.

American government sources said they believe Cuba wants to cut back on the extensive travels here by Cason, who has logged more than 6,200 miles since arriving here in the fall.

Washington last week imposed similar travel restrictions on Cuban diplomats in the United States, saying it was responding to Havana's move.

Cuban officials are also frustrated over treatment of five convicted Cuban spies now serving time in American prisons. They were recently moved to solitary confinement.

The men were convicted in Miami of trying to infiltrate U.S. military bases and Cuban exile groups in Florida and now face sentences ranging from 15 years to life.

Cuban officials have lauded the men as patriotic heroes, insisting they were only working to prevent Cuban exile groups from organizing and executing terrorist acts against their homeland.

U.S. Upset With Cuba's Dissident Arrests

By George Gedda, Associated Press Writer. Thu Mar 20, 2:08 AM ET

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration expressed outrage Wednesday over Cuba's arrest of dozens of dissidents and also defended the top U.S. diplomat in Havana against allegations that he was carrying out subversive activities.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called the arrests "an appalling act of intimidation against those who seek freedom and democratic change in Cuba."

He demanded that the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which opened its annual six-week meeting in Geneva on Monday, censure Cuba for the arrests.

"These people have been arrested for simply speaking out, one of the most basic internationally accepted human rights," Boucher said.

Even by the normally tendentious standards of the public exchanges between Washington and Havana, the discourse lately has been ugly.

An official statement read on Cuban state television's evening news Tuesday accused the chief of Washington's diplomatic mission in Havana, James Cason, of trying "to foment the internal counterrevolution."

"No nation, no matter how powerful, has the right to organize, finance and serve as a center for subverting the constitutional order," the statement said.

The criticism was an apparent reference to the travels around the island of U.S. diplomats, especially Cason. According to U.S. officials, Cason has traveled 6,200 miles since arriving in Cuba last summer.

Boucher said the activities of Cason and his colleagues are no different from those of U.S. diplomats elsewhere.

Cason, he said, "has visited with Cuban people in their homes. He's visited independent libraries. He's visited other independent voices."

He added that Cuban government comments suggest that many of the detainees were arrested for meeting with U.S. diplomats.

Boucher said the crackdown on the dissidents is Cuba's response to the growing opposition movement on the island and the increasing desire of change among the population.

"We call on the Cuban government to release them immediately and for the international community to join us in demanding their release," Boucher said.

Cuba's best known dissident, Oswaldo Paya, was not arrested. He gained international attention last year through a petition drive aimed at promoting liberal reforms.

The nongovernmental Reporters Without Borders said at least a dozen of those arrested were independent journalists.

President Fidel Castro has delivered personal attacks on Cason, calling his behavior "bizarre" and sharply criticizing him for meeting with a dissident group in Havana on Feb. 24.

The U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva has been a U.S.-Cuba battleground for years over U.S.-backed attempts to censure Cuba for its rights record. This year is expected to be no exception.

Boucher called on the commission to condemn the arrests in the strongest terms.

"Cuba has again demonstrated that it is not fit to sit on this commission," Boucher said.

In an apparent bid to curb the travels of Cason and his colleagues, Cuba demanded last week that all U.S. diplomats receive prior approval of for travel beyond the 434-square mile unrestricted area encompassing the city of Havana and Havana province.

Beforehand, notification of Cuban authorities was required but not approval. Within 24 hours, the State Department, in the interests of reciprocity, imposed the same restrictions on travel by Cuban diplomats in Washington.

Both countries operate out of small diplomatic missions that are below the embassy level. Formal diplomatic relations were broken in 1961.

Tensions rise between Cuba and U.S. after dissident crackdown, new travel restrictions on American diplomats

By Kevin Gray, Associated Press Writer. Wed Mar 19, 5:02 PM ET

HAVANA - Bubbling tensions between Havana and Washington boiled over on Wednesday after Cuban authorities rounded up dozens of dissidents they accuse of being traitors working for the top American diplomat on the island.

Along with launching the biggest crackdown on the internal opposition in recent years, Cuban authorities announced they were limiting the movement of U.S. diplomats.

Fidel Castro's government accused those arrested of being "directly linked to the conspiratorial activities" it claims have been carried out in Cuba by U.S. Interests Section Chief James Cason. It promised to bring them to trial.

"There should be no doubt that the Revolution will rigorously apply what is necessary and what the circumstances demand," said a statement read Tuesday night on government-controlled television and radio. In similar roundups in the past, many of those picked up have been released after a few hours or days without formal charges.

Opposition activists fear that those arrested will be tried under the much-criticized, but never-yet-applied "Law against National Independence," which carries sentences of up to 10 years.

The law passed in February 1999 made it a crime to publish "subversive" materials provided by the U.S. government.

The U.S. Interests Section here distributes short wave radios and a wide range of books and pamphlets — some political, some not — throughout Cuba with the stated purpose of promoting American culture, democracy and human rights.

Calling the action "the most intense repression in recent years," veteran human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez said that he had confirmed 24 detentions around the island and was working to confirm reports of 10 more.

The island's best known activists, including Oswaldo Paya — the top organizer of the Varela Project reform effort — were left alone.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher expressed outrage over the arrests, calling it an "appalling act of intimidation against those who seek freedom and democratic change in Cuba."

"These people have been arrested for simply speaking out, one of the most basic internationally accepted human rights," Boucher said.

At least a dozen of those rounded up were independent journalists, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

"This wave of detentions marks an end to a period of relative tolerance for the independent press," said Robert Menard, the group's secretary general.

The detentions came during the annual U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, where Cuba's record is regularly condemned.

The government statement announcing the arrests also confirmed new travel restrictions for U.S. diplomats.

U.S. officials have said American diplomats in Cuba must now get prior approval to travel outside the 434-square-mile (700 square kilometers) area that includes the capital of Havana on the northern coast and the large Havana Province that wraps around it on the west, south and north.

Although a big area, it represents just a small part of the more than 65,000 square miles (105,000 square kilometers) that make up the largest island in the Caribbean.

Previously, U.S. diplomats had to notify Cuban officials when they traveled outside the Havana region, but no advance approval was necessary.

Washington last week imposed similar travel restrictions on Cuban diplomats in the United States, saying it was responding to Havana's move. The two governments have had no regular diplomatic relations since 1961.

The measures signaled Havana's increasing anger with Cason, who during six months on the island has met with opposition members around the island and last week allowed dissident journalists to use his official residence for a meeting.

Cason has said he is merely trying to promote democracy and human rights on the Caribbean island.

Cuban officials are also frustrated over treatment of five convicted Cuban spies now serving time in American prisons. They were recently moved to solitary confinement.

The men were convicted in Miami of trying to infiltrate U.S. military bases and Cuban exile groups in Florida and now face sentences ranging from 15 years to life.

Cuban officials have heralded the men as patriotic heroes, insisting they were only working to prevent Cuban exile groups from organizing and executing terrorist acts against their homeland.

Passengers, crew of hijacked Cuban plane taken to Miami detention center; 6 suspects in jail

By Julienne Gage, Associated Press Writer. Thu Mar 20, 1:40 PM ET

KEY WEST, Fla. - U.S. authorities on Thursday questioned 31 passengers and crew who were aboard a Cuban airliner that was hijacked and diverted to the Florida Keys.

The six crew members and 25 passengers, including five children, were taken to a federal detention center near Miami Thursday morning after being held at Key West International Airport, the FBI said.

It was not known whether any of the passengers and crew had requested asylum in the United States, but Cubans are generally allowed to remain if they ask to.

The six alleged hijackers were being held at a county jail and were expected to be arraigned on federal hijacking charges, said Judy Orihuela, an FBI spokeswoman in Miami.

Jacqueline Becerra, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, said the United States has jurisdiction to prosecute the men under air piracy laws because the plane was taken to the United States.

Officials said the six, some armed with knives, took control of the plane late Wednesday as it headed to Havana from Cuba's Isle of Youth. Four of the crew members were restrained with tape and rope and the pilots were ordered to fly to Key West, Orihuela said.

The twin-engine Douglas DC-3 landed under U.S. military escort.

"After they landed, the hijackers gave themselves up," airport manager Peter Horton said. "They surrendered their knives to airport police on the field."

The alleged hijackers were identified by the FBI as Alvenis Arias Izquierdo, 24; Alexis Norniella Morales, 31; Eduardo Javier Mejias Morales, 26; Nevdis Infante Hernandez, 31; Yainer Olivares Samon, 21; and Maikol Guerra Morales, 25.

Air traffic controllers at Miami International Airport spotted the plane on radar about 7:45 p.m. but were unable to make voice contact, said FAA (news - web sites) spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen. Air Force fighter jets intercepted, and the plane landed safely at 8:06 p.m.

"The hijackers were separated fairly quickly from the passengers and crew. Everyone's OK," Herrin said. "Nobody tried ... anything."

The plane took off from Nueva Gerona, the principal city on the small Isle of Youth, according to Leonardo Pena, a Cuban civil aviation official.

Pena confirmed that the incident was being treated as a probable air piracy case. The plane was on a regularly scheduled flight from Nueva Gerona to Havana, he said. The Isle of Youth is about 85 miles (135 kilometers) south-southwest of Havana and about 185 miles (300 kilometers) south-southwest of Key West.

Pena did not know who owned the plane. Florida officials said it was owned by a company called Aerotaxi.

State-owned Cubana Airlines provides passenger service between Nueva Gerona and Havana, but it uses Soviet-era Antonov AN-24 planes.

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