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First of Cuban dissidents sentenced to up to 27 years

Times wire services
Published April 8, 2003

HAVANA - Fidel Castro's government dealt a crippling blow to Cuba's opposition movement Monday, sentencing peaceful activists, journalists and an economist to up to 27 years in prison for allegedly collaborating with U.S. diplomats to undermine the socialist state.

Prosecutors sought life sentences for the dissidents, who were among 80 facing closed trials that began Thursday. It was unclear how many dissidents were sentenced Monday.

Opposition political party leader Hector Palacios, among those originally recommended for a life sentence, received 25 years, said his wife, Gisela Delgado.

"This is an injustice," Delgado said. "We are as Cuban as members of the Communist Party."

The communist government accuses the dissidents of being on Washington's payroll and collaborating with U.S. diplomats to harm Cuba and its economy. In many trials, undercover government agents who infiltrated opposition ranks revealed their true identities to testify against dissidents.

A list of 36 sentences confirmed by the nongovernmental Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation showed the longest was 27 years for independent journalist Omar Rodriguez Saludes.

The last trials were expected to end Monday, with all sentences being announced before the end of this week.

21 killed as fire engulfs school in Russia

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia - A fire engulfed an old wooden school in the northern Siberian republic of Yakutia on Monday, killing 21 students and a teacher, emergency officials said.

Ten more students were hospitalized with burns and fractured bones after they tried to escape the flames by jumping out the windows of the two-story building, said Yelena Mineyeva of Yakutia's Emergency Situations Ministry. The students were between the ages of 11 and 18.

Elsewhere . . .

COLOMBIA: A U.S. State Department plane used to fumigate drug crops crashed in southern Colombia Monday and its American pilot was killed, the U.S. Embassy said. It was not clear if the crash was caused by an accident or if the plane had been shot down.

ITALY: Thieves stole two Roman frescoes and damaged other priceless mural art in Pompeii Friday or Saturday. Selling such rare art on the open market would be almost impossible, a government spokeswoman said.

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