By Pascal Fletcher
HAVANA, July 9 (Reuters) - Cuba's Foreign Ministry said on Thursday it had nothing to hide about prisoners in Cuban jails, but it refused to give any information about four leading dissidents who have spent a year behind bars without trial.
Several foreign governments, including Canada and members of the European Union (EU), have called for the release of the four -- Martha Beatriz Roque, Vladimiro Roca, Felix Bonne and Rene Gomez Manzano.
They have been held in detention since their arrest on July 16 last year.
At the Foreign Ministry's weekly press briefing in Havana, ministry spokesman Alejandro Gonzalez was repeatedly asked what formal charges had been brought against the four and if the government intended to eventually bring them to trial.
``The ministry has no information about that. I have nothing to say about that,'' Gonzalez replied at the briefing, which was also attended by diplomats from several foreign embassies.
For months, the Cuban government has consistently ducked public questions about the four dissidents, who were arrested after they issued a document criticising Cuba's one-party communist system and calling for democratic changes.
Gonzalez said the government was always willing to discuss any issue in private with foreign embassies as long as this was ``on the basis of respect for national sovereignty.''
``We have nothing to hide. We don't feel defensive or anything like that,'' he added.
But pressed on what authorities planned to do about the four dissidents, he curtly replied: ``On this recurring theme, I have neither any comment nor information to offer.''
Gonzalez also refused to comment about a document released on
Wednesday by a leading Cuban human rights activist, Elizardo Sanchez.
The document listed 381 political prisoners in Cuban jails, including the four detained dissidents, but it said the numbers of such prisoners had fallen in the past two years.
``I have nothing to do with any lists,'' Gonzalez said, adding the Cuban government did not recognise the term political prisoners, preferring to call them ``counter-revolutionary prisoners.''
The Cuban authorities routinely do not comment on sensitive issues like political opponents or prisoners, their arrest or their trials. The official media maintain a similar silence.
``The government of Cuba has nothing to be ashamed of,'' Gonzalez said, when asked about the official silence.
Last week, Cuban President Fidel Castro responded angrily to a foreign journalist's question about political prisoners in Cuba.
``Aren't there political prisoners in the United States? What's a political prisoner? Aren't there political prisoners in Europe?'' Castro asked.
``Those who want to destroy the (Cuban) Revolution and receive a salary from the United States to do it, is that political or not?'' he added.
Foreign diplomats said this reference could reflect the Cuban government's view of the four dissidents in question, although authorities have so far presented no public evidence or charges against them.
As foreign governments have moved recently to boost relations with Cuba, the issue of political prisoners has increasingly been raised by official foreign visitors to Havana.
Following a clemency appeal from Pope John Paul, who visited Cuba in January, the Cuban government has announced the release of more than 300 prisoners, including political detainees.
Many foreign governments welcomed this but called for more releases.
But the Cuban leadership, citing the long-running U.S.
embargo against the island, is resisting calls for more democratic freedoms.
Such public calls have so far come from Canada, the European Union, members of the Organisation of American States and the Roman Catholic Church.
The Cuban government's unwavering response has been that it will not accept any outside interference in its internal affairs nor any political conditions to join international organisations or regional groupings.
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