Cuba frees ‘Ladies in White’ after arrests

March 19, 2012 2:28 pm

, HAVANA, Mar 19 – With a visit by Pope Benedict XVI looming, police in Cuba arrested over 50 activists, including members of the Ladies in White group, amid a surge in anti-government protests.

In one operation, police broke up a protest march by the wives and mothers of political prisoners and arrested about 20 dissidents after they strayed off their usual march route, an AFP reporter witnessed.

That came just hours after an activist with the Ladies in White said another 33 women, including the group’s leader Berta Soler, were detained as they were leaving the group’s headquarters to attend Sunday mass at a Roman Catholic church.

“They were going to leave the headquarters to take part in the mass held every Sunday but when they went out they were all detained,” said Odalys Sanabria.

The dissident group has stepped up its activities with the approach of a visit to Cuba — the Americas’ only one-party Communist-ruled nation — by the pontiff March 26-28.

An AFP reporter watched as about 20 members of the group of 33 were surrounded by female police officers in plain clothes outside a restaurant in east Havana, some 10 blocks away from their usual weekly march route.

Backed by male agents, the female officers forced the protesters to board a police bus while uniformed police officers halted traffic.

Three men were among those arrested, including former political prisoner Angel Moya, the husband of the group’s leader.

Only hours earlier on Saturday, Soler and a group of about 20 women had gone out to march but were intercepted by authorities, and packed off to a police station in the Cerro neighborhood where they were booked and held for hours before they were released.

On Thursday, police evicted 13 other dissidents who occupied a Havana church for 48 hours to press the pope to push for political freedom during his trip to Cuba. Police acted at the request of Havana archbishop Jaime Ortega.

The pontiff does not plan to meet with dissidents, Vatican officials say.

The Ladies in White, which won the 2005 Sakharov Prize, has long pressed for the release of political prisoners — including their loved ones.

The Catholic church has been deeply involved in mediating the release of political prisoners, but some opposition members have been critical of it for cooperating with the regime.

But the church is keen to maintain and expand its influence to try to stoke new Catholic religious fervor in Cuba, where fewer than 10 per cent of whose inhabitants consider themselves practicing Catholics.

After decades of official atheism, the Cuban regime now has cordial relations with Roman Catholics and other churches.

Benedict’s will be the first visit to Cuba by a pope since John Paul II in 1998, which helped usher in the era of better church-state ties. John Paul urged the government to “open up” to the world, yet it remains a highly isolated, centrally run one-party state.


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