HAVANA — Cuban police detained about 20 people, including three top dissidents, apparently to thwart a rally seeking the release of political prisoners, a longtime activist said Friday.
"These are arbitrary detentions and a flagrant violation of the freedom of association and peaceful demonstration," said Elizardo Sanchez, head of a group called the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
Supporters of President Fidel Castro also staged noisy demonstrations outside the homes of opponents who had planned to rally outside the French Embassy in Havana for the release of political prisoners.
The detentions came more than two years after the government arrested 75 independent journalists, opposition politicians, rights activists and others, in March 2003, accusing them of receiving U.S. aid to overthrow Castro's government and sentencing them to long prison terms.
Marta Beatriz Roque, who headed a May 20 gathering of dissidents, was among those rounded up by state security agents, Sanchez said. Two other organizers of the meeting, Rene Gomez Manzano and Felix Bonne, also were detained, he said.
Sanchez said he wasn't sure whether the dissidents had been formally arrested or were detained temporarily to prevent them from attending the protest. Only a dozen dissidents showed up.
In contrast, about 200 people attended the May 20 event that Roque organized at Bonne's residence. Dissidents and observers were surprised then that the communist government allowed the event to proceed uninterrupted.
Sanchez said about 40 dissidents were blocked from attending the protest Friday.
"Our objective is to demand that the European nations take an interest in the political prisoners of our country," opposition member Adolfo Lazaro Bosk said.
Pro-government neighbors of dissident Leon Padron Azcuy surrounded his home, sang the Cuban national anthem and shouted in support of Castro.
As of Friday night, Cuban authorities had not commented on the detentions.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman, asked earlier in the day about the planned opposition rally, repeated the government's stance that Cuba's small dissident groups were organized and paid for by Havana's long-standing foe, the United States.
U.S. authorities have repeatedly rejected those charges.