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Cuban dissidents are sentenced to 25 years in prison

The first Cuban dissidents to be tried after a round-up of about 80 opponents of Fidel Castro's government last month received prison sentences of between 15 and 25 years yesterday, prompting condemnations from the US government and international free-speech groups.

The first batch of convictions, believed to number about a dozen, included one prominent political leader, Hector Palacios, and two well-known journalists, Raul Rivero and Ricardo Gonzalez. The trials, expected to conclude this week, are being held behind closed doors in what the US State Department has characterised a "kangaroo court".

News of the first sentences were announced by family members. "This is an injustice," said Gisela Delgado, the wife of Mr Palacios, and she told reporters that her husband had been given a 25-year term for collaborating with American diplomats to undermine the state. "We are as Cuban as members of the Communist Party," she said.

Last month's arrests constituted the largest crackdown on dissent Cuba has seen for many years. They were made apparently in reaction to the activities of James Cason, the new US head of mission in Cuba, who has openly courted dissidents and delivered vehement anti-Castro speeches in their presence.

Mr Cason, who heads the so-called US Interests Section, particularly upset the authorities with a meeting held at his house in February in which he told the assembled company: "The Cuban government is afraid: afraid of freedom of conscience, afraid of freedom of expression, afraid of human rights."

Mr Castro described the meeting as a "shameless and defiant provocation" and threatened to close the US mission altogether. Instead, he ordered the arrests of dissidents and imposed new travel restrictions on US diplomats wishing to leave Havana.

The United States has accused the Cuban government of taking advantage of the war in Iraq to move against its opponents while world opinion is focused elsewhere. The Cubans have accused the Americans, in turn, of openly attempting to foment "regime change" in Cuba without respect for diplomatic etiquette.

Until Mr Cason arrived in Cuba, dissidents were given a certain degree of latitude to publish independent viewpoints and to organise their own unions and political parties. According to reports in the US media, Mr Cason has not only broadened contacts with dissidents, but has also organised the distribution of anti-Castro books and documents and handed out shortwave radios to enable Cubans to listen to anti-government broadcasts from Florida.

Last week, the Committee to Protect Journalists sent a letter to Mr Castro urging him to free 27 independent writers and reporters caught up in the crackdown and to return confiscated computers, research materials and other equipment seized from their homes.