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25 detained in Cuba, dissident Ladies in White say

HAVANA — Cuba's Ladies in White say that more of its members were stopped from attending Sunday demonstrations in Havana and Santiago one day before Pope Benedict XVI visits the island.

Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White — or Damas en Blancos, a dissident group of the wives and relatives of political prisoners — said seven members were detained in Havana and another 18 in Santiago. Cuban officials would not comment on the accusations of Ladies in White, but they said the women were taking advantage of the pontiff's visit to attract the attention of international media.

If true, the actions marked the second weekend in a row when members were taken into custody. More than 70 Ladies in White were arrested on March 17 and March 18.

Standing under a tree outside Santa Rita church Sunday afternoon, Mercedes Fresneda Castillo, who said she was held 48 hours last weekend before being released, pointed to a scab on her right leg where she said police kicked and dragged her.

"The repression is always tough, but it's been worse the last few weeks because of the pope's visit," Fresneda said. "The government wants the pope to see what they want, not the reality of the people."

Soler said the group has yet to hear from the pope about its request for a brief meeting to discuss human rights in Cuba.

"We just want one moment with the pope to tell him about the realities of Cuba," Soler said.

The group has held weekly marches along Fifth Avenue outside Santa Rita church since mid-2010. It's the only public protest allowed in Cuba.

More than 30 women dressed in white and carrying their traditional gladiolas marched Sunday, followed by dozens of foreign journalists. The demonstration continued without incident except for a woman who screamed out pro-government slogans and called the protesters' family members common criminals.

Sitting with a friend near a statue of Indian independence hero Mohandas K. Ghandi, Jose Perez, 63, called the march "a show."

"I don't feel any repression," he said. "As long as you don't do anything wrong, you don't have problems."

Becky Felicia was taken into custody by officials Sunday morning as she left her downtown Havana home, according to her nephew.

Yuris Martinez Sanchez answered the door at 7 a.m. Three women and four men, dressed in civilian clothes, told him to warn his aunt not to attend Mass.

Martinez said his aunt refused. She left the house three hours later.

"They were waiting," he said. "When she walked out the door they grabbed her and put her in a police car."


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