Cuba forcibly removes 30 women in Havana protest

AFP reports that Cuban police forcibly took some 30 women off the streets Wednesday as they marched in a protest led by the mother of a political prisoner who died in a hunger strike. The so-called “Ladies in White” were heckled by hundreds of government supporters as they marched through Havana with the mother of Orlando Zapata, who died in a prison hunger strike February 23. Police moved in and female officers forced the dissidents into two buses and drove them to the home of group leader, Laura Pollán, where they were dropped off and allowed to go free, a member of the group told AFP.

It was the first time in two years that police intervened against the dissident women’s group. “We are protesting peacefully and we are not going to get on the bus of a government that has kept our family members in prison for seven years,” Pollán said just before being forced on the bus. As police were taking the women away, Margarita Rodríguez, a housewife in a crowd of some 300 pro-government demonstrators, shouted: “Board them by force, it’s what they deserve. This is a provocation.”

The Ladies in White, a group of wives and mothers of political prisoners, had been staging marches every day this week to mark the anniversary of a 2003 crackdown that jailed 75 opposition activities, 53 of whom are still behind bars. The women began the day Wednesday with prayers in a Catholic church before setting out, apparently intent on visiting dissident Orlando Fundora, who was jailed in the 2003 crackdown but later released for health reasons.

At the head of the march was Reyna Luisa Tamayo, Zapata’s mother, who has charged that her son had been tortured in prison and that his death on the 85th day of a hunger strike amounted to “premeditated murder.” The incident sparked international outrage and new calls for Havana to free political prisoners. The government says there are no political prisoners in this Caribbean nation of more than 11 million people, and claims there is no torture and that dissidents are paid pawns of the United States. A day after Zapata’s death, activist Guillero Farinas, 48, began his own hunger strike to press for the release of 26 political prisoners in need of medical care. Hospitalized a week ago in the central city of Santa Clara, he is being fed intravenously on doctors’ orders.

Meanwhile, a virulent campaign launched by state media to counter what it says is a “defamatory” campaign against Cuba in Europe intensified last week after the European Parliament passed a resolution deploring Zapata’s avoidable death. Every day, the Cuban media has denounced the mistreatment of immigrants or “police brutality” in countries like Spain, France and Germany. They accuse Europe of pursuing a “neo-colonial” and “subversive” policy together with the United States to “destabilize” a revolution already struggling with a serious economic crisis. “After the Americans, it is now our turn to experience a degradation in our relations with the government” of Raúl Castro, said a European diplomat, who said he was unsure what would happen at a meeting of the European “troika” with Cuba in Madrid April 6.

In Madrid, Oscar-winning Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has signed a petition calling for the immediate release of all political prisoners in Cuba, his production company said on Tuesday. Several personalities, including Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, are among some 5,000 people who have already signed it. The petition calls for “the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Cuban jails and the respect of the exercise, promotion and the defense of human rights throughout the world.” But if Zapata’s death has upset Havana’s traditional relations with the European left, Cuba still enjoys broad support in Latin America where elected governments in Brazil, Uruguay and Bolivia have come to its defense. “Imagine what would happen if all the bandits detained in Sao Paulo went on hunger strike and demanded their freedom,” said Brazil’s President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, a friend of the Castro brothers, refusing to intercede on behalf of some 200 Cuban political prisoners.

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