HAVANA (AFP) — Cuba has cracked down on a bold demonstration organized by the leading woman dissident in the Americas' only communist-ruled country.
At least 21 Cuban dissidents were detained and prevented from joining the protest outside the Justice Ministry in Havana Thursday led by prominent activist Martha Beatriz Roque, whom police took home by force, Roque told AFP.
Roque, an economist who has been twice jailed for her opposition to the ruling Communist Party, and five other protesters went to the ministry to deliver a letter to Justice Minister Maria Esther Reus demanding better treatment for political prisoners.
During the protest, Roque said a crowd of about 100 government supporters gathered across the street to taunt them, calling them "mercenaries" and "worms," everyday insults the government uses for foes of the one-party system.
Soon after "some 15 agents of state security and three women police officers forced me onto a bus," she said. Police then dropped her off at her home.
Two of those detained with Roque belonged to the group "Women in White," comprised of wives of political prisoners. The group was "pushed aboard" the bus and "verbally mistreated" and also driven home, Roque said.
The officer in charge told Roque that police were protecting her from "the wrath of the people," the activist said.
Roque told AFP that the group of 21 detainees included Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, who was released in April after 17 years in prison for political offenses.
According to the dissidents there are 250 political prisoners in Cuba, a number that has decreased during the 14-month interim presidency of Raul Castro.
The Cuban government however denies there are political prisoners, or dissidents as such, claiming that those who oppose it are being paid by the United States.
US President George W. Bush, in a speech to the UN General Assembly in New York Tuesday, called for "free and competitive elections" in Cuba, saying the long rule of ailing President Fidel Castro "is nearing its end."
"In Cuba, the long rule of a cruel dictator is nearing its end," he told world leaders gathered here, in a reference to Castro.
"The Cuban people are ready for their freedom," he added, stressing as the communist-ruled island enters a period of transition, "The United Nations must insist on free speech, free assembly and ultimately free and competitive elections."
The United States and Cuba do not have full diplomatic relations. The United States has a trade embargo on Havana stretching back 45 years.
Fidel Castro underwent intestinal surgery on July 27, 2006, and has not been seen in public since. Just after the operation he "provisionally" handed power to his brother Raul, Cuba's longtime number two, though Cuban authorities insist the veteran leader is still involved in major issues.
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