The trials of nonviolent Cuban dissidents that began this morning should be halted immediately, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch also called on the Cuban government to drop all charges against the defendants.

The ongoing trials are the latest development in a wave of repression that began on March 18. Approximately 80 people have been arrested and detained since the crackdown began, including prominent dissidents, human rights activists, independent journalists, and directors of independent libraries.

"The fact that this wave of repression coincides with the war in Iraq is surely no accident," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "It is truly shameful that the Cuban government is opportunistically exploiting the world's inattention to try to crush domestic dissent."

The prosecutions and mass detentions represent the most severe crackdown in Cuba in nearly a decade. They come just as Cuba faces likely condemnation for human rights abuses by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

Trials were reported to have begun at 8:30 a.m. this morning, with defendants being accused of working with U.S. diplomats to undermine the Cuban government. Among the many defendants reportedly being tried today are Marcelo López Bañobre, of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (Comisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos y Reconciliación Nacional, CCDHRN), Marcelo Cano Rodríguez, also of the CCDHRN, Marta Beatriz Roque, an independent economist, and Oscar Espinoza Chepe, another independent economist.

Prosecutors are reportedly seeking life sentences for some of the defendants, and extremely heavy sentences for others.

Defendants are being prosecuted under the Law for the Protection of Cuban National Independence and the Economy (Ley de Protección de la Independencia Nacional y la Economía de Cuba, Ley 88), which took effect in March 1999, and the Law Reaffirming Cuban Dignity and Sovereignty (Ley de Reafirmación de la Dignidad y Soberanía Cubanas), which took effect in December 1996. The Cuban government justifies both laws as a response to the Helms-Burton Law, a U.S. law that hardened the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

The Cuban courts deny defendants basic rights of due process. Courts lack independence and impartiality, and trials of dissidents are sometimes held behind closed doors, violating the right to a public trial.

"These defendants are being tried for exercising basic rights of freedom of expression and association," Vivanco said. "The Cuban government is putting on an extremely ugly show."