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Cuba detains U.S. government contractor

"Counterrevolutionary activities," which include mild protests and critical writings, carry the risk of censure or arrest. Anti-government graffiti and speech are considered serious crimes.

"It should come as no surprise that the Cuban regime would lock up an American for distributing communications equipment," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), a Cuban American and the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The detention of an American in Cuba is rare. The handful of U.S. citizens behind bars in Cuba are there for crimes such as drug smuggling, said Gloria Berbena, the press officer at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

"An activity that in any other open society would be legal -- giving away free cellphones -- is in Cuba a crime," said José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas program of Human Rights Watch. The group recently issued a critical report on freedoms in Cuba called "New Castro, Same Cuba," a reference to installing Raúl Castro as president in place of his ailing older brother Fidel.

Human Rights Watch highlighted 40 cases, including that of Ramón Velásquez Toranzo, who was sentenced to three years in prison for "dangerousness" in 2007 after setting out on a peaceful protest march across Cuba.

Vivanco said that the accused in Cuba are often arrested, tried and imprisoned within a day. He said that any solution to the contractor's case would probably be political and that the Cuban government often provokes a negative reaction in the United States just as both countries begin to move toward more dialogue.

"Our prime concern is for the safety, well-being and quick return to the United States of the detained individual," said the contractor's boss, Jim Boomgard, chief executive officer of Development Alternatives.

Sheridan reported from Washington.

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