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Anddy Sierra Alvarez for IWPR – WNN Breaking

Ladies in White protest Havana, Cuba

Members of Cuban human rights group “Damas de Blanco” at their weekly demonstration following Sunday mass at Santa Rita cathedral in Havana in April 2012. Image: Wikipedia

(WNN/IWPR) Havana, CUBA, AMERICAS: The Cuban government is cracking down hard on weekly protest marches by Damas de Blanco dissident group in the western city of Cárdenas.

For more than three months, activists say, they have been harassed, arrested and beaten in an attempt to prevent them carrying out their Sunday rallies in the city, located in Matanzas province.

Damas de Blanco (“Ladies in White”) is a pacifist group set up by women campaigning for the release of 75 relatives imprisoned during what became known as the “Black Spring” of 2003.

Their trademark protest action involves attending Sunday mass wearing white clothing and then holding a silent march.

All the original 75 detainees have been released, but the group continues to campaign for human rights and now have representatives in all Cuba’s main cities.

Damas de Blanco have been marching in Matanzas for a year and a half, but official hostility to their activities has been growing in recent months.

The group’s leader Berta Soler – who recently met United States vice-president Jose Biden in the White House to discuss the human rights situation in Cuba – says there is a “wave of repression” because the government is “worried by our growth in Matanzas”.

Activists say the authorities detain them just before they go into church or as they come out. Some are driven to distant villages or as far as the provincial boundary to prevent them taking part in the protest walk.

Asunción Carrillo Hernández, a 64-year-old Damas de Blanco member, said that on various occasions the authorities had dropped her so far away she had been forced to walk about 20 kilometres back.

“I’ve had to walk a long way, or try to get a cart to bring me home. They’re so abusive,” she said.

Near the church, police ranks are reinforced by warders from the local prison, while a counter-protest takes place with participants holding up placards bearing pro-government slogans. Damas de Blanco members say these “protesters” are in fact government employees turned out for the occasion.

“When we leave the church, police vehicles, cars and even a bus from the Agüica prison [200 kilometres away] are deployed,” Carrillo Hernández said. “All this in one day, and when we get as far as one block away from the church, a police officer comes to tell us that we can’t walk because the people won’t allow it.”

She said that if the procession continued after this warning, then “the abuse, insults and beatings begin”.

Members of the Pedro Luis Boitel movement, named after a dissident who died on hunger strike, have also been beaten and arrested when they accompanied Damas de Blanco marches.

Sayli Navarro Alvarez, a Damas de Blanco spokeswoman, said that several members of the opposition Patriotic Union of Cuba had also been assaulted and detained.

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WNN/IWPR