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Cuba detains 70 'Ladies in White' ahead of Pope visit

Franklin Reyes / AP

The 'Ladies in White' protests are the only ones allowed in Cuba.

HAVANA - Cuban authorities detained about 70 members of the dissident group Ladies in White over the weekend, drawing fresh attention to human rights issues days ahead of a visit by Pope Bendict XVI.

Eighteen women, dressed in their customary white clothing, were rounded up and taken away in buses after they left their permitted route through Havana's Miramar neighborhood during their weekly Sunday march in the Cuban capital, said a Reuters cameraman on the scene.

The arrests are likely to bring into focus the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Communist Cuban regime, which is officially atheist but has recently had better relations with Christian groups.

A One Cuba/Una Cuba Facebook campaign has been started by Cuban Americans in Florida, calling for the Pope to meet the country’s dissidents during his two-day visit, which begins March 26.

The Miami Herald notes that Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998 was followed by concessions from the government including permission for television broadcast of Masses while Christmas Day became a national holiday.

However, Catholic authorities said last week a visit with dissidents was not on the pope's program.

Ladies in White member Magaly Norvis Otero Suarez told Reuters that 16 of the women were arrested Saturday evening when they attempted to stage a march in central Havana and another 36 were detained Sunday morning as they prepared to go to mass at Santa Rita Catholic Church, then stage their silent march along 5th Avenue, Miramar's main boulevard.

They had gathered at the home of their deceased leader Laura Pollan over the weekend to commemorate the anniversary of the arrest of 75 government opponents in March 2003 that gave rise to the organization, Otero said.

Human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez told Reuters that along with the estimated 70 women detained in Havana, another 12 dissidents were arrested in other provinces.

"The Ladies in White," or "Damas de Blanco" in Spanish, were the wives and mothers of the 75, who received lengthy sentences but have all been freed, most as part of a 2010 agreement brokered by the Roman Catholic Church that resulted in the release of 130 political prisoners.

The group has continued its weekly marches, which are the only public protests allowed in Cuba, saying there are still more political prisoners to be freed.

They are allowed to walk along a 12-block stretch of 5th Avenue, but are quickly detained when they vary from the prescribed route. On Sunday, they continued toward the Malecon, Havana's famed seaside boulevard, before police swooped in.

In numerous similar incidents in the past, the women have been released within hours without charges.

By early evening on Sunday some of the women had been freed.

'Not very favorable climate'
"They released us an hour ago and have begun releasing the others, though many have yet to report in," Otero, one of the 18 women picked up at noon on Sunday, said by telephone. The detentions followed a controversial incident last week when 13 dissidents occupied a Havana Catholic church demanding that Pope Benedict mediate an end to Communist rule.

After two days, they were ousted by police at the Church's request, which raised the hackles of Cuba's small dissident community.

Sanchez said the arrests are "creating a not very favorable climate for the pope's visit."

"The fault lies first with the government for its excessive repression as always, and the Catholic authorities' error for allowing the violent expulsion of dissidents from the church," he said.

Ladies in White leader Berta Soler has said her group would like to meet briefly with the pope to discuss human rights in Cuba. She was not at the Sunday march because she was among those detained beforehand.

The Cuban government views dissidents as "mercenaries" in the pay of the United States, its longtime ideological foe.

However, the visit of the Pope throws the activities of groups such as Ladies in White into the spotlight.

Amnesty International has previously raised concerns about their treatment, saying Ladies in White “have repeatedly suffered harassment from Cuban authorities for their peaceful protests”.

Last year a report issued by the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said rocks and iron bars were used against them in one attack, causing them “injuries, some considerable."

However, the Ladies in White distanced themselves from activists who occupied a Catholic church last week demanding that Pope Benedict XVI press Havana for political freedom.

That group of dissidents, allied to the little-known Republican Party of Cuba (PRC), were holed up since Tuesday at the Our Lady of Charity church in central Havana.

"I don't know them," said Guillermo Farinas, a dissident who has been on hunger strike more than 20 times, told the AFP by telephone. He warned the activists to "beware of carrying out any type of provocative action that could damage the credibility of the peaceful political opposition in Cuba."

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Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.