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Human rights activists fear arrest ahead of Pope’s visit to Cuba

Cuban political dissidets in Havana (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The leader of a human rights group has raised concerns that the Cuban government will repeat its crackdown on activists when Pope Francis visits next month.

In 2012 Cuban officials made arrests during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit, to keep dissidents from communicating with one another, according to the head of an opposition group.

Berta Soler is the leader of Women in White, a group of wives and other relatives of jailed Cuban dissidents.

“We’re really worried,” Soler told CNA. “When Pope Benedict XVI came to Cuba they shut down telephone lines in an area of some 15 to 25 miles.

“They did the same to the cell phones of human rights activists and their close relatives.”

Soler claims the government put them under surveillance three days before the former pope’s arrival.

“Cuban officials began arresting all the human rights activists so we couldn’t participate in the Masses the Pope celebrated in Santiago de Cuba and Havana,” she said.

Pope Francis is due to visit Cuba next month, from September 19th to 22nd.

“We’re waiting [to see what will happen]” Soler said. “We’re thinking the same thing is going to happen when the Holy Father Pope Francis comes.”

Solder said The Women in White as well as other human rights activists will try to go to the Masses because “we want to be close to the Holy Father.”
They aim to go, despite feeling they are going to be arrested.

Soler met with Pope Francis in Saint Peter’s Square in May 2013 and sent a letter to the pontiff through the nunciature and through friends.

Soler said she asked the Pope: “When you come to Cuba could you listen to us even for a few minutes?”

The dissident leader said there had already been arrests of The Women in White and other opposition activists recently.

The group has been going on marches for the past 18 Sundays.

She said that the Castro government is assembling “paramilitary mobs organized and financed by (the regime) to physically and verbally attack us.”

She thinks national police and state security agents are also involved.

According to Soler, “there are about 80 political prisoners and 42 who are only technically released or on parole.”

The latter 42 could be arrested again and sent back to prison without trial at any moment.

On Sunday August 16th more than 60 human rights activists along with some Women in White were restrained and arrested as they were marching after Mass at Saint Rita’s Church in Havana.

Then another 50 human rights activists and members of the Women in White were arrested in Havana on Sunday August 23 at at the protest march.

Speaking to the newspaper Martí News, Solder said excessive force was used in some arrests.

Those detained were released five hours later, while others were released at nightfall in uninhabited areas where Soler said there was risk of violence or assault.

Soler was also charged.