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The Cuban authorities should release a group of human rights activists and independent journalists who were arbitrarily detained by police in March, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to President Fidel Castro.

According to information received by Human Rights Watch, six human rights advocates and two independent journalists were beaten and arrested on March 4, 2002, at a provincial hospital in Ciego de Avila, Cuba, where they had staged a peaceful protest. They had gone to the hospital in support of a reporter who had been physically attacked by the police earlier in the day while he was traveling to a meeting of the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights.

"The beating and incarceration of these activists is unjustifiable," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "This is yet another example of the Cuban government's intolerance of political dissidence and independent journalism."

Human Rights Watch has been informed that the human rights defenders prayed for the hospitalized reporter and briefly shouted statements such as "Long live human rights." The group stopped yelling and sat down in a hospital hallway when hospital workers requested they be quiet. After they had been sitting quietly for approximately one hour, the state security police arrived. The police dragged the activists and journalists from the hospital, beating them and placing them in detention.

Juan Carlos González Leiva, one of the incarcerated activists, is a blind man who is president of the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights and the Fraternity for the Blind in Cuba. Due to the physical assault by police at the time of his arrest, he required four stitches on his forehead. He has been accused of public disorder and contempt, crimes that carry a possible prison sentence of one to three years. No trial date has yet been set in his case.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that González is not receiving appropriate treatment in prison. Human Rights Watch has been informed that the authorities have taken away his glasses and his cane, and no special accommodations have been made for his blindness.

The others, who remain incarcerated in various detention centers in Cuba, include five human rights defenders, Delio Laureano Requejo, Lázaro Iglesias Estrada, Virgilio Mantilla Arango, Enrique García Morejón, and Antonio García Morejón, and two independent journalists, Léxter Téllez Castro and Carlos Brizuela Yera.

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