Cuba Supporters Break Up Prison Protest

The Associated Press
Tuesday, March 20, 2007; 7:59 PM

HAVANA -- Government supporters broke up a public protest Tuesday by prisoners' wives who intermittently shouted "Freedom! Freedom!" as they marched through a neighborhood in the capital to mark the crackdown that put their loved ones behind bars.

More than 40 government supporters shouted down the smaller "Ladies in White" group with cries of "Long Live Fidel!" in a reference to ailing leader Fidel Castro. There were no physical confrontations between the two groups, and it was not immediately known if there were any arrests.

"We are people who have to defend our revolution, our streets," said government supporter Esperanza Gomez, explaining the counter-demonstration.

The Ladies in White protest was unusual during what has been a low-profile period for dissidents, who largely have eased many public activities since the 80-year-old Castro fell ill in late July and temporarily ceded his functions to his brother Raul, the defense minister.

The wives and other female relatives of political prisoners, dressed all in white to signify peace, march silently down Havana's Fifth Avenue every Sunday following Roman Catholic Mass.

Those marches are largely tolerated by government officials. Over the years, it has only been interrupted once by government supporters shouting revolutionary slogans.

Since Saturday, the Ladies in White have held activities every day to mark the fourth anniversary of the crackdown launched against dissidents on March 18, 2003, just as the first U.S. military strike on Iraq was getting under way.

Authorities rounded up 75 critics in the crackdown who were tried on charges of being U.S. mercenaries to undermine Castro's government and sentenced to long prison terms. The independent journalists, rights activists and other dissidents denied they received U.S. government funds.

Sixteen of the original 75 have since been released on medical parole. The 59 still behind bars are among the 283 political prisoners rights activists say were held in Cuba at the beginning of this year _ 50 fewer than those counted in January 2006.

© 2007 The Associated Press