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Cuba releases Ladies in White as Pope visit nears

Leader of the dissident group Ladies in White, Berta Soler, left, poses with members of the group at the home of deceased leader Laura Pollan, in Havana March 19, 2012.


Cuba released 70 members of the dissident Ladies in White group detained during the weekend but warned them not to attend activities related to next week's visit of Pope Benedict, the group's leader said on Monday.

The women, known in Spanish as the Damas de Blanco, were freed without charges after being arrested in three separate incidents on Saturday and Sunday when they attempted to march in Havana.

Leader Berta Soler, who was detained twice during the weekend, said in a phone interview she was released on Sunday night and given the warning about the Pope, who will come to Cuba from March 26 to 28 and give two public masses.

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"They said we couldn't participate in the masses when the Pope comes, neither in Santiago nor in Havana," Ms. Soler said.

"They are mistaken because who is going to prohibit us from being close to Christ, being close to God, to the Pope who represents Christ on earth?" she said.

Ms. Soler has said her group would like to meet briefly with the Pope to discuss human rights in Cuba but Roman Catholic church authorities said last week a visit with dissidents was not on the schedule.

The Obama administration condemned the detentions on Monday.

"The detention of members of the Damas de Blanco this weekend in Havana in the lead up to Pope Benedict's visit underscores the disdain of Cuban authorities for the universal rights of the Cuban people," said a statement issued by National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.

"The quiet dignity of the Damas stands in stark contrast with the acts of those who are standing in the way of the basic aspirations of the Cuban people."

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

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The Ladies in White 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 church that resulted in the release of 130 political prisoners.

The women, dressed in white and with pink gladiolas in hand, have continued their 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 in Havana's Miramar neighbourhood but are quickly detained when they vary from the prescribed route, as they did on Sunday when 18 of the women were arrested.

The other detentions took place on Saturday when the women tried to stage a march in central Havana and on Sunday at Ms. Pollan's home as they readied to go to the weekly protest.

Ms. Soler said they had been told while detained that they would no longer be allowed to conduct their weekly walk, which the government has threatened before. Cuban authorities view dissidents as "mercenaries" in the pay of the United States, their long-time ideological foe.

After a three-day visit to Mexico, the German pontiff will go to the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba on March 26, then to Havana on March 27 before returning to Rome the next day. The trip is viewed as a show of improved church-state relations after decades of hostilities.

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