March 15, 1999
Web posted at: 7:18 p.m. EDT (1918 GMT)
HAVANA (CNN) -- Four of Cuba's most prominent dissidents were sentenced Monday for acts of sedition against the communist government.
The most severe sentence was a five-year term handed down to Vladimoro Roca, 56, a former military pilot and the son of the late Cuban communist leader Blas Roca.
Attorney Rene Gomez Manzano, 55, and engineer Felix Bonne, 59, were each sentenced to four years in jail. Marta Beatriz Roque, 53, an economist, was sentenced to three and a half years. The prison terms were announced on state-run television Monday afternoon.
"It is wrong, it is unjust," said Roca's wife, Magaly de Armas, who learned of her husband's sentence on the news. "They didn't even call."
The four have already spent 19 months in jail. They were arrested in July 1997 for criticizing a Communist Party document they say failed to address Cuba's economic problems.
Prosecutors also accused them of encouraging Cubans to boycott elections and other acts of civil disobedience. They were also condemned for holding news conferences with outside media and exhorting international businessmen not to invest in Cuba.
Trade consequences for Cuba?
The trial of the four was held behind closed doors during the first week of March, a move that drew criticism from many countries, including Cuba's top trading partners.
Canada, several European countries and the Vatican have all called on President Fidel Castro's government to free the dissidents.
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien said Monday he was "disappointed" in the verdict and would review his country's bilateral relations with Cuba.
The trial may also have a negative impact on Cuba's improved relations with its Latin American neighbors and Europe.
King Juan Carlos II of Spain is expected to visit this spring and Cuba will also host the Ibero-American Summit this fall -- two events which could turn into a forum for human rights complaints.
Crackdown on subversion
Communist officials reject the characterization of the four as political prisoners. They insist that the Cuban government only jails people for common crimes.
A panel of five judges sentenced the dissidents for "repeated crimes as laid out in the penal code," the television statement said. Prosecutors had asked for sentences of six years for Roca and five years each for the other defendants.
"Even though the damages done to our country were very serious, and the anti-patriotic character of the acts very serious, the tribunal stuck strictly to the laws that existed at the time the acts happened," the statement said.
The government has issued a number of new, tougher anti-subversion measures during the past months.
One such law, entitled the "Protection of National Independence and Economy," penalizes those who cooperate with outside media to promote the U.S. embargo or change Cuba's political system.
Family members said that the four rejected offers to go into exile instead of standing trial. Some expressed relief that they did not receive the maximum sentence.
"From the point of view of our family, I feel OK. Soon we will have Marta Beatriz at home again. With nearly two years already fulfilled, and benefits for good behavior, she is nearly in the street again," said a nephew, Joel Alfonso Roque.
Roca's wife was more defiant and announced plans for an immediate appeal.
"From the start, we were never in agreement with the arrest," she said. "We want him (Roca) free, and we are going to carry on fighting for that."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
© 1999 Cable News Network.