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Cuban opposition group Ladies in White collect prize

image captionSeveral Ladies in White made the trip to Brussels to collect the award

Members of the Cuban opposition group Ladies in White have collected the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in Brussels.

They were awarded the prize by the European Parliament in 2005, but Cuba barred them from leaving the communist-run island to collect it.

The abolition of exit permits by the Cuban government in January made it possible for the women to travel.

They were given the prize for their campaign to free 75 jailed dissidents.

The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought is awarded annually by the European Parliament to individuals or organisations who have dedicated their lives to the defence of human rights and freedom. It is named after the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

In 2012, it went to Iranian activists Jafar Panahi and Nasrin Sotoudeh.

As she accepted the award on behalf of the group, Lady in White Laura Labrada said they had never lost faith that one day they would be able to collect the prize.

"We are mothers, wives, daughters and sisters of Cubans who find themselves in prison in Cuba for exercising the most sacred human right: to live according to one's own conscience," she said.

Ms Labrada collected the prize on behalf of her mother, co-founder of the Ladies in White Laura Pollan, who died in 2011.

She was joined by other Ladies in White at the ceremony.

"You are the symbol of resistance against the Cuban government, and thousands of Cubans support you inside and outside the country," said the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz.

But in Havana, the Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister, Abelardo Moreno, suggested that other Cubans were more worthy of the award.

"I ask myself, would it not be worth giving prizes to the work of Cuban doctors in Haiti, for example?" he said.

'No change'

The Ladies in White was founded by the wives, sisters and friends of 75 jailed Cuban activists, who were rounded up and sentenced to long prison terms in 2003 as part of a crackdown on the opposition movement.

Dressed in white, the women march in silence in the Cuban capital, Havana, every Sunday, defying Cuba's ban on organised opposition and street demonstrations.

They are routinely detained and their protests broken up, but they say their protests have yielded results. All 75 prisoners they campaigned for have been released.

The Ladies continue their protest, now demanding that the convictions of the 75 be officially overturned.

Before travelling to Brussels to collect the prize, Ms Labrada told the BBC's Sarah Rainsford in Havana that they still suffered harassment at the hands of the Cuban police.

"The arrests continue. It's true the time in detention is less, but we're still repressed, still detained - and in big numbers. Just for thinking differently... This has not changed," she said.

The Cuban authorities say that the group is in the pay of the United States and forms part of Washington's "decades-old effort to undermine Cuba's socialist revolution".

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