- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Oswaldo Paya, Cuba’s most internationally celebrated opposition figure, yesterday proclaimed “Cuban Spring” in a letter released to mark the anniversary of a government crackdown on dissidents.

In homage to the 1968 Prague Spring, in which Czech dissidents and artists protested against communism before a brutal Soviet crackdown, Mr. Paya said the suffering of Cuban dissidents had focused the world’s attention on President Fidel Castro’s regime.

“They are in cages, without space, even though they fought for the freedom of all,” he said of 75 dissidents who have been jailed since their arrest last year, most for their participation in a petition campaign demanding basic human rights.

Mr. Paya said they are “hated, even though they preach forgiveness and reconciliation; humiliated and scorned, even though they have defended the dignity and rights of all; threatened with death even though they are defenders of life. …

“From the darkness of their cells, they are proclaiming the Cuban Spring, which is the hope for all people,” he wrote in the letter, released yesterday by the National Democratic Institute in Washington.

In March last year, Cuba began arresting dozens of dissidents, opposition figures, independent journalists, economists and librarians, in the biggest crackdown on government dissent in years.

Many of those arrested were associated with Mr. Paya’s Varela Project, which collected tens of thousands of signatures in an attempt to force the government to hold a referendum on democratic reforms.

In one-day show trials, 75 rights activists were given sentences of six to 28 years.

Among the imprisoned was Julio Antonio Valdes, who is now in need of a kidney transplant. “My husband is dying slowly,” his wife, Cruz Delia Aguilar, said Tuesday in Havana. “I ask for his release into the hands of the International Red Cross.”

An envoy appointed by the U.N. high commissioner for human rights to probe Cuban abuses, French magistrate Christine Chanet, said last month dozens of Cuban dissidents were being held in alarming physical and psychological conditions.

Her report, which also faults the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, is being presented in Geneva this week as the United Nations gathers to discuss human rights in the world. The U.S. delegation there is working to get a declaration passed condemning Cuba’s abuses.

For its part, the Cuban government is protesting the inclusion on the American delegation of Luis Zuniga Rey, a Cuban who spent 19 years in Cuba’s prison system and who remains active against the Cuban government.

In a report released on Tuesday, Amnesty International said: “The Cuban authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience.”

The Amnesty Report details cases of withholding medical care, solitary confinement and other abuses of the prisoners. Cuba does not allow either the United Nations or the Red Cross access to its prisoners.

Prisoners’ wives in Havana told wire service reporters that a dozen of the jailed dissidents, several of them over 60 years old, have been taken to a hospital for treatment. These include economist and former diplomat Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who suffers from cirrhosis.

“They are killing him,” said his wife, Miriam Leyva. “I ask the government to set all 75 free because their only crime was to express their ideas.”

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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