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Cuban trials of dissidents to call for life sentences

©Associated Press

April 3, 2003

HAVANA -- Cuba is seeking life sentences for at least 10 of the dissidents jailed in the largest crackdown in years -- aimed at extinguishing all government opposition, the island's best-known rights activist said Wednesday.

A total of 78 dissidents have been arrested since March 18, accused of working with U.S. diplomats to subvert Fidel Castro's government and being mercenaries in the pay of Washington.

Prosecutors are seeking life sentences for 10 of them, including political leaders Osvaldo Alfonso Valdes and Hector Palacios, independent journalist Ricardo Gonzalez and economist Marta Beatriz Roque, said human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez.

The trials are scheduled to begin today in at least four Havana courthouses, he said.

Authorities have accused the arrested of being traitors and mercenaries for the U.S. government.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Zimmerman called the trials a travesty. The Cubans "are being tried for exercising their rights of freedom of expression and association."

The action shows "the repressive nature of the Castro regime and its fear of any sign of opposition to its ironclad rule," he said.

Hijackers commandeer Cuban ferry

HAVANA -- Armed hijackers seized a ferry off Cuba's coast Wednesday and threatened to toss passengers overboard if they cannot go to the United States, setting off a negotiating drama on the high seas.

The FBI said the ferry was drifting in international waters about 60 miles off Key West. Hostage negotiators were being sent to the scene by helicopter to rendezvous with a U.S. Coast Guard cutter.

Fidel Castro's government said it would handle the crisis. It said 50 passengers were aboard the boat.

FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela said Cuban officials told her agency that there were 15 to 20 people aboard the 45-foot boat. There was no immediate explanation for the differing figures.

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