Cuban opposition activists arrested in Havana

'Ladies in White' opposition activists held in Havana

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Cuban police have arrested dozens of opposition activists, a week ahead of a visit by Pope Benedict XVI.

Most of those detained are members of the protest group Ladies in White, who are demanding the release of political prisoners.

Many were stopped as they staged their silent weekly protest march along an avenue in the capital, Havana.

The group says the country's Communist authorities have increased pressure on them in recent days.

The government says they are paid by the US to undermine Cuba's revolution.

The Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) usually attend Mass together and then stage a protest march outside calling for the release of all political prisoners.

Leader seized

A group spokeswoman said that 19 of its members had been detained on Saturday evening while trying to stage a march in central Havana. Three have since been released without charge.

On Sunday morning, police detained another 36 members of the group - including leader Bertha Soler - as they made their way to attend Mass together in Havana.

After the church service, 22 women and two men were arrested as they marched to the city centre, trying to go beyond a route that has recently been tolerated by the authorities.

Start Quote

This weekend has been another one full of political repression by the totalitarian government”

End Quote Elizardo Sanchez Cuban Human Rights Commission

Witnesses said they were bundled into an unmarked bus by plain-clothed police officers. That group was also released without charge after several hours.

The BBC's Sarah Rainsford in Havana says that ahead of the Pope's visit protesters have become more vocal and the government seems to have reacted accordingly.

Elizardo Sanchez, of the banned but tolerated Cuban Human Rights Commission, condemned the arrests.

"This weekend has been another one full of political repression by the totalitarian government," he said. "The worst part of it is that the victims of the repression have been, basically, women."

He said it was still not clear where many of those arrested were being held.

Human rights

The detentions come just a week before Pope Benedict is due in Cuba. During his visit he is expected to raise the issue of human rights with the Communist government.

Angel Moya, a Cuban dissident and former political prisoner, said the Pope could not bring freedom to the island.

Poster for Pope's visit in Havana Preparations are under way for the Pope's visit to Cuba

"Benedict XVI is coming only on a pastoral visit, with a message of love, with a message of reconciliation, with a Christian message," he said.

"Therefore, he is not the liberator of Cuba. The exclusive liberator of Cuba is the Cuban people."

This Sunday marks the ninth anniversary of the arrests of 75 opponents of the Cuban government.

The Roman Catholic Church was instrumental in securing their release in 2010, following years of protests by their wives and sisters.

The Ladies in White were initially composed of family members of those dissidents detained in 2003, but later also championed wider human rights issues.

Earlier this year, it received the US government's Human Rights Defender Award for what Washington called their exceptional valour in protecting human rights in the face of government repression.

The Ladies in White have often faced harassment from government supporters.

Cuban authorities say such demonstrations are spontaneous reactions by ordinary citizens against "mercenaries, paid by the US", but the opposition say they are orchestrated by officials.

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