Elias Biscet, who could have been sentenced to seven years, admitted during his trial Friday that the flags were hung upside down at his home, but said patriots throughout Cuban history have used such action as a sign of civil disobedience.
The 38-year-old physician received one year each for dishonoring patriotic symbols, public disorder and instigating delinquency.
"In no moment was there an intention to dishonor national symbols," Biscet told a three-member tribunal. "I respect those symbols. I am Cuban."
Biscet testified that he became an activist after protesting late-term abortions at a government hospital where he worked. He eventually was fired.
Although the flag protest had nothing to do with Biscet's anti-abortion stance, his opposition to the communist government's public health policies allowing abortion on demand has been a constant theme in interviews and in demonstrations calling for freedom of expression and the release of political prisoners.
He and his supporters have enraged the government on several occasions with protest signs reading "Child Murderers," a declaration largely misunderstood in a country where abortion is extremely common and carries virtually no social stigma.
After the verdict was read, Biscet waved a "V" for victory sign at those in the courtroom. His mother, Hilda Gonzalez, 64, wept and his wife, Elsa Morejon, protested that he was innocent.
In a separate trial of two other government opponents, Fermin Scull Zulueta was sentenced to one year for public disorder for displaying a sign that read "Justice for the Murdered Children" during a protest, while Eduardo Diaz Fleitas was acquitted of the charge. They faced 4½ year terms.
The issuing of sentences significantly shorter than the maximums and the admittance of journalists and diplomats in the court room were possible signs that the government was easing its stance toward dissidents, said public defender Sergio Hernandez.
"Biscet is happy with this," Herandez said. "He had expected seven years, even though he is innocent. It is not 100 percent what one would want but it is an improvement."
Hernandez said there is still a charge of public disorder pending against Biscet for a separate protest. No trial date has been set.
The government allowed a small group of reporters to attend the trial, as well as representatives of the Spanish and Canadian embassies and the U.S. Interests Section, which functions as the American mission.
At least nine anti-government activists were detained on the eve of the trial in an apparent move to prevent anti-government protests outside the courthouse, said Elizardo Sanchez, president of the independent Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation. Such detentions are commonly used to prevent public demonstrations.
Biscet, who also led a 40-day protest last year to demand the release of political prisoners, was arrested Nov. 3 after the protest at his home. It apparently was the upside-down flags that most enraged Cuban authorities.
Biscet went on trial the same day the U.S. State Department released its annual report on human rights around the world. The report accused Cuba of suppressing opposition and criticism, saying "Cuban authorities routinely harass, threaten, arbitrarily arrest, detain, imprison and defame human rights advocates and members of independent professional associations."
Cuba says it holds no prisoners of conscience, only common criminals, and characterizes people like Biscet as "counterrevolutionaries."
Fidel Castro's government was criticized last year when the trial of four well-known opposition leaders charged with sedition was closed to the press and the public.
© Copyright 2000 The Associated Press