- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2001

The arrest of two Czech nationals in Havana may have been meant as a warning to Prague against sponsoring a resolution condemning Cuba's human rights record at the United Nations, the Czech ambassador to the United States said yesterday.

The Czech Republic already has earned the wrath of Cuban President Fidel Castro by successfully sponsoring resolutions to that effect at the U.N. Commission for Human Rights in Geneva the past two years.

"We know it is important to keep solidarity with those who are repressed," said Alexandr Vondra, the Czech ambassador in Washington.

"When we took the initiative in 1999 and 2000 and won, Castro was very angry. One explanation for the arrests is that he is trying to blackmail us with our parliamentarian as a hostage."

Cuba last Friday arrested Ivan Philip, a member of the Czech parliament since 1996, and Jan Bubenik, a student leader during Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution and a former parliamentarian.

The men, who were traveling in Cuba on tourist visas, are accused of meeting dissidents in violation of Cuban immigration law. They were arrested in the central province of Ciego de Avila, for "attempting to establish subversive contacts with counter-revolutionary residents."

Mr. Vondra, who was spokesman for the Czech dissident organization Charter 77 before the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and was in prison when the Berlin Wall fell, called the arrests "extraordinary."

"I cannot remember an incident where they put a parliamentarian in," Mr. Vondra said. "Even in my experience in communist Czechoslovakia, the government did not put the people in jail who came to support us."

Mr. Vondra was the first official to link the arrests to his government's sponsorship of human-rights resolutions in 1999 and 2000 and its intention to sponsor a new resolution when the U.N. gathering takes place this spring.

"Cuba is actively violating basic principles of human rights. What better example could we ask for than the arrest of our parliamentarian? It is a human rights case par excellence," he said.

The Cuban government said Tuesday that the men would be tried before a "revolutionary tribunal." No trial date has been announced.

The Cuban Interests Section in Washington yesterday refused to comment on the issue, referring all questions to an editorial in Cuba's communist organ Granma, which declared the men as "agents in the service of the United States."

In general, foreigners who upset Cuban authorities are expelled. No one with the rank of parliamentarian has ever been tried on such a charge.

Cuba has accused the men of acting on behalf of Freedom House, an American organization which promotes democracy worldwide. The group refused yesterday to say whether the men were representing it, but said it condemned the arrests and "encourages person-to-person contact in all societies."

Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican and the incoming chairman of the House International Relations Committee, also condemned the arrests. "This only serves to underscore the brutal and arbitrary nature of the regime in Havana," he said.

The State Department objected to the arrests, saying the Czech visitors' only offense "was to meet with Cuban activists who seek peaceful change of Cuba's totalitarian government."

The men are being held in a Villa Marista, a Havana prison best known for holding Cuban dissidents.

It was announced yesterday in Prague that a Czech government delegation would be traveling to Cuba this weekend to seek the men's release.

It has been U.S. policy since 1995 to encourage "people-to-people" contact with ordinary Cubans, including dissidents.

More than a dozen U.S. organizations, including Freedom House and the Center for a Free Cuba, receive U.S. aid for work in Cuba. Some routinely recruit private individuals to travel to Cuba to deliver books, communications equipment and humanitarian aid to dissidents and their families.

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