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Crackdown on Dissidents Follows Cuban Emigration

By Tod Robberson
The Washington Post

President Fidel Castro's decision last month to open Cuban shores to unrestricted emigration has been accompanied by new repression against the country's leading dissidents, according to a human rights group and a diplomat in Havana.

At least 30 prominent dissidents and human rights activists have been detained for various periods in apparent retaliation for an Aug. 5 riot in downtown Havana, the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation said in a statement. The Aug. 5 incident, which followed two other violent confrontations between police and civilians, helped prompt Castro's decision to open the emigration floodgates, leading to the exodus of thousands of rafters from Cuban shores.

Among those arrested were three lawyers, two physicians and two human rights activists, the commission said. The detainees have been thrown in jail or sporadically placed under house arrest at various times since Aug. 5.

One of those arrested, actor Rene del Pozo, said Thursday he continues to receive threats from members of Castro's feared interior police. He said he spent five days in a squalid jail in early August after police ransacked his house and has been detained twice since then, the most recent arrest occurring last week. He and others said the arrests appeared directly related to the Aug. 5 demonstration although police initially charged him for "illegal possession of three cases of beer." He said he was later formally charged with spreading "enemy propaganda," an offense that carries a prison sentence of two to 10 years.

A Western diplomat confirmed independently that the arrest of dissidents had occurred, although the Cuban government has said nothing about them.

Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, president of the independent human rights commission, said he fears Castro is planning to use a U.S. request for a crackdown on departures of Cuban raft people as a "pretext for massive repression" against Cubans who have taken advantage of the crisis to denounce the government.

The United States and Cuba are negotiating an accord to halt the seaborne exodus of Cubans, at least 20,000 of whom have been intercepted by U.S. Coast Guard ships and taken to detention camps at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station on Cuba's southeastern tip.

After years of appeals by Washington for Cuba to ease restrictions on emigration and to halt oppression of dissidents, the Clinton administration is asking Castro to cut off the flow of rafters. In exchange, Washington is offering to increase the limit on immigration visas that the United States grants every year.

"This is exactly what Castro wants - to blame somebody else for something he has always planned to do," Sanchez said. "You can be sure that as soon as he closes the door, the arrests and repression will begin."

The heavy presence of police and neighborhood security units known as Revolutionary Defense Committees historically has made average Cubans cautious about their public behavior.

But the recent influx of U.S. journalists and television cameras has spurred some Cubans to criticize the government, often giving their full names. They will be the government's primary targets once Castro begins his crackdown, Sanchez warned.

Sanchez has spent eight of the past 12 years in various Cuban prisons and has been listed by the London-based human rights organization Amnesty International as one of the country's main targets of political oppression.

Sanchez said he received two telephone threats Thursday warning him that he would be arrested if he talked to journalists or diplomats about the arrest campaign. Six plainclothes policemen stood outside his Havana home today closely observing his movements.

As Sanchez reported receiving threats in Havana, Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina held talks Thursday and Wednesday in Madrid with a representative of Sanchez's human rights commission and two other self-described moderate members of the Cuban opposition in exile.

"This is a very contradictory government. On one hand they hold talks with the opposition, while on the other hand they arrest them," actor del Pozo said. "Nobody knows why they do this. We're the ones asking for dialogue with Fidel Castro. We're the moderates."