By Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 2, 1999; Page A13
A year after the historic visit of Pope John Paul II, whose presence here raised hopes for an easing of restrictions on free expression, the trial opened this morning behind closed doors in a courthouse ringed by security agents who kept foreign journalists, diplomats and other observers several blocks away.
The independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation said that since Friday authorities had rounded up nearly 40 other dissidents and warned an additional 35 to remain at home today in an apparent effort to prevent protests outside the courthouse.
"This is a disproportionate response. We have not seen this kind of state security activity in years," said commission spokesman Gerardo Sanchez.
The four defendants -- three men and one woman -- were arrested in July 1997 for their outspoken opposition to the government of President Fidel Castro. According to charges filed by state prosecutors, the dissidents urged foreign businesses not to invest in the country and called on Cubans not to vote in local elections nor participate in official party organizations. Prosecutors also accused the activists of speaking on Radio Marti, which is run by the U.S. government and opposes Castro's rule. The state is seeking prison sentences of five to six years for the defendants.
Sources close to the case said that the accused -- Vladimiro Roca, Marta Beatriz Roque, Felix Bonne and Rene Gomez Manzano -- have not denied their involvement in opposition activities, but insist that they did nothing more than voice their opinions peacefully.
Outside the courthouse, Michael G. Kozak, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, decried the fact that he and others were denied access to the trial.
"It is really a shame and shows that the system is ashamed of the process," he said. Asked if his presence might jeopardize the fate of the dissidents, Kozak responded: "My being here will not hurt anything. I am sure the verdict has already been decided."
The trial comes two weeks after Cuba's legislature approved tough new penalties for anyone involved in U.S.-linked political opposition to the Castro government. The measures were approved after President Clinton announced in January that he was easing a long-standing trade embargo against this country of 11 million people, a move that Castro described as a ruse to undermine his rule. In Washington, the State Department said the roundup of activists before the start of a trial proved Cuba's intolerance.
"We strongly denounce these actions by the Cuban government, which reveal
its utter disregard of the concerns of the international community, which
has insisted that the four be released," State Department spokesman James
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