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Cuban authorities release 'Ladies in White' marchers, dissident says

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
March 19, 2012 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Members of the
Members of the "Ladies in White" march every Sunday to protest against the Cuban government.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A dissident says all the "Ladies in White" who were detained Sunday have been released
  • Members of the group are relatives of Cuban dissidents
  • Their arrest comes a week before the pope's scheduled three-day visit
  • White House National Security Council: Cuba is using "tactics of intimidation" to "stifle dissent"

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Cuban authorities have released dozens of members of the "Ladies in White" group after detaining them, a dissident said Monday.

All of the members of the group who were detained Sunday were released, said dissident Oscar Ernesto Chepe, who supports the group.

Cuba's official state-run media has not reported on the arrests, which occurred about a week before Pope Benedict XVI's scheduled visit to the island.

The organization, known as "Damas de Blanco" in Spanish, is composed of the family members of Cuban dissidents, many of whom have been jailed. Every Sunday, the women march silently from a Havana church to their homes to protest against the Cuban government.

The island's government has said the women are paid by the United States to create disturbances on the island.

"We were doing our march as we usually do when women dressed in civilian clothes stopped us," said group member Katia Sonia, who said she was among a group of 22 demonstrators arrested Sunday.

Sonia said the women were state security agents, who took the marchers to a police station for questioning.

Another 52 women from the group were arrested, she said, as they made their way to the Mass.

The arrests may have been the result of the group marching a few more blocks than they typically do, or because tensions before the pope arrives in Cuba are spurring a new crackdown, Sonia said Monday.

Last week 13 members of a dissident group were arrested after entering a Catholic church and refusing to leave until there were permitted an audience with the pope. The group was later arrested after church leaders failed to convince them to leave.

The Ladies in White have also asked to meet with the pope during his visit to Cuba. So far, no meetings with opposition groups are on the pope's schedule for his three-day trip, which includes two large public Masses.

A spokesman for the White House National Security Council accused Cuban authorities Monday of using "tactics of intimidation and harassment to stifle peaceful dissent" as the pope's visit nears.

"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," spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.

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