June 15, 1999
By Andrew Cawthorne
HAVANA, June 14 (Reuters) - Cuban opposition activists on Monday entered the second week of their 40-day fast to demand respect for human rights with a defiant public meeting punctuated by cries of "Libertad! Libertad!" and emotional testimony from relatives of political prisoners.
At a Havana house where six protesters are fasting -- they do not eat solid foods but take liquids -- some 50 dissidents gathered to denounce President Fidel Castro's government for alleged rights' abuses and the jailing of dissidents.
"We are already a bit weak, but spiritually strong," said one of the protesters, Oscar Elias Biscet, who heads a small and militant opposition group called the Lawton Foundation.
"This fast is to demand Castro's communist government to respect human rights and free all the political prisoners ... The Cuban people demand justice, demand freedom."
The government has denounced the protest that began last Monday as a propaganda move sponsored by anti-Castro groups in the Cuban exile community in Florida.
Havana denies the existence of political prisoners in Cuba, saying all inmates are there for legitimate reasons, including "counter-revolutionary" crimes stipulated in Cuba's penal code.
Moderate opposition and rights groups estimate there are about 380 political prisoners in Cuba -- a figure generally accepted by foreign governments.
Monday's meeting, attended by foreign correspondents and unauthorized "independent" journalists working outside state media, was a rare act of open defiance by Cuban dissidents. They have kept a lower profile in recent months since the government passed tough, anti-subversion measures.
At various points, the dissidents chanted "Libertad! Libertad!", before organizers hushed them for fear of disturbing neighbors or provoking the Cuban authorities.
In words seldom heard publicly inside Cuba, activists denounced the Castro government as a totalitarian dictatorship responsible for genocide against political prisoners and turning Cuba into a concentration camp for everyone.
"I came to give support to these great friends," said Magalys de Armas, wife of Vladimiro Roca, a Cuban prisoner who has drawn considerable attention abroad.
The son of former Cuban communist hero Blas Roca, Roca was tried and convicted recently for sedition along with other members of the so-called "Group of Four" dissidents.
"I came to show solidarity with them in the name of the four, in the name of Vladimiro, who is also holding a fast today in Ariza (prison) in solidarity," she said.
Another woman, Noris Duran, gave an emotional appeal on behalf of her jailed son, ending with the shouted appeal: "I call on God, the world, all the women in the world, to demand that this government stops the abuses! Freedom! Freedom!"
Others broke down in tears as they spoke of alleged murder, torture, unfair trials, and denial of food and medicine to political prisoners. A Pentecostal bishop, Santo Osmany, said two of his fellow priests had recently been subjected to electroshock treatment, and that another had been found dead in a Havana river.
In an unrelated speech Friday, Castro referred briefly to human rights' issues, insisting that, despite U.S.- orchestrated campaigns to defame Cuba, there had not been one incident of torture or disappearance in Cuba since his 1959 revolution.
The six-hour speech was intended primarily to denounce NATO for alleged genocide against Yugoslavia.
Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited
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