Cuban dissidents on trial amid heavy security
March 1, 1999
HAVANA (CNN) -- The trial of four Cuban dissidents accused of sedition began Monday morning, with police maintaining tight security in the area surrounding the Havana courthouse where the trial was being held.
Security forces kept international journalists and diplomats away from the , held in the capital's Marianno district.
"It's not a very good day for Cuban justice," said senior U.S. diplomat Michael Kozak, who was escorted by police away from the courthouse.
The "Group of Four" -- former military pilot Vladimiro Roca and son of late Communist Party leader Blas Roca, Rene Gomez Manzano, engineer Felix Bonne and economist Marta Beatriz Roque -- were arrested in July 1997 for criticizing the Communist Party and urging reforms.
"I hope I will be able to bring my husband home," said Roca's wife Magaly de Armas as she and her daughter arrived at the courthouse.
Earlier, de Armas said she doesn't understand "the crime in writing down your opinion in a peaceful manner."
Roca, Manzano, Bonne and Roque had criticized a draft plan that was before the party Congress. They also held news conferences with international journalists to explain their position that the plan did not adequately address Cuba's economic problems.
Human rights advocates in the United States, Europe and the Vatican were keeping track of the trial.
Sources said that at least 24 supporters of the four had been detained in the days leading up to the trial, apparently to prevent a repeat of demonstrations last year outside the trials of other, lesser-known dissidents.
"It's clear that (the authorities) are not going to allow any shows of solidarity around the trial," Gerardo Sanchez, of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said Sunday.
Havana had no official comment on the reports of the detentions, but regularly denies it represses freedom of speech or holds prisoners of conscience.
The Cuban government has come under increasing pressure regarding its record on human rights, most notably from Pope John Paul II who visited the island country more than a year ago. More than 80 prisoners were released following his visit.
But since the arrest of the "Group of Four," Cuba has enacted a tough law aimed at silencing dissidents who promote the U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba. A conviction under the law carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Roca, Manzano, Bonne and Roque cannot be tried under the new law.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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