The trial was to begin today for the three men and one woman arrested in July 1997 for criticizing a major Communist Party document. The case has drawn expressions of concern from the Vatican, the United States and Europe.
National Revolutionary Police in blue uniforms and plainclothes state security agents barred about two dozen journalists from approaching the courthouse, located on a side street in Havana. Cameramen and photographers were forbidden to stand on a street corner to capture images of police blocking the main road to the court.
There was no information about what was going on inside the building.
``I hope I will be able to bring my husband home,'' Magaly de Armas, wife of defendant Vladimiro Roca, said as she and her daughter arrived today. If not, de Armas said, she and her husband were ``prepared for anything.''
The top defendant is Roca, a former military pilot and son of the late Cuban Communist Party leader Blas Roca. Also charged are Rene Gomez Manzano, engineer Felix Bonne and economist Marta Beatriz Roque.
``My hope is that they are freed, that justice is done,'' De Armas said over the weekend. ``I still don't see the crime in writing down your opinion in a peaceful manner.''
Relatives said many of the dissidents' supporters have been detained by state security agents in recent days, apparently to prevent protests outside the courthouse.
Government officials, who never comment on such detentions, were infuriated by a demonstration last year outside the trial of another dissident, which was widely reported by foreign media.
Communist officials insist there are no political prisoners in Cuba, only people jailed for common crimes. They reject the characterization of the four as prisoners of conscience.
The trial was expected to last several days.
The four dissidents distributed a critique of a draft economic plan being considered the Communist Party Congress, saying it did not present solutions to Cuba's severe problems. They also held two news conferences with foreign journalists.
When they were charged last fall, the prosecution recommended a six-year sentence for Roca and five years each for the others.
Since then, the government has passed a tough, broadly worded law aimed at silencing dissidents. Those convicted can face up to 20 years in prison. The four cannot be tried under the new law, but it signals a tougher government stance toward the opposition.
The government, however, has also come under heavy pressure over human rights.
Most notably, Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in January 1998, calling for fundamental freedoms, respect for human rights and an independent civil society. More than 80 prisoners were freed after his visit.
© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press