HAVANA – Cuban authorities detained a prominent dissident and dozens of her colleagues early Sunday, then rounded up more activists while they staged a weekly protest march through Havana just days before a visit by Pope Benedict XVI.
Police took away Bertha Soler and three dozen supporters of the Ladies in White dissident group hours before they were to take part in a regular march down Quinta Avenida in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana.
“They were arrested,” said Angel Moya, Soler’s husband and a former political prisoner himself. Soler was also detained briefly Saturday evening, he said.
About 30 other Ladies supporters did make it to the march, which began peacefully, but state security agents moved in when the Ladies tried to extend the protest into streets they don’t normally enter. All were escorted onto a bus belonging to state security. By Sunday evening, many had been released and some driven back to their homes, though Soler was apparently still being held.
The Ladies in White formed in 2003, shortly after authorities jailed 75 intellectuals, activists and social commentators in a notorious crackdown on dissent, sentencing them to long prison terms. All have since been freed, and many have gone into exile.
Cuba has cleared its jails of most political prisoners, but human rights groups say the government of President Raul Castro has stepped up short-term detentions and other forms of harassment against the island’s tiny opposition.
Cuba denies it holds any political prisoners.
The U.S. State Department criticized the detentions of Soler and the other activists.
“We strongly condemn this assault on peaceful members of Cuba’s civil society,” spokeswoman Neda A. Brown said.
The detentions came just over a week before a March 26-28 visit by Benedict, who is likely to encourage the government to adopt increased religious, political and human rights during his tour, at least privately.