Cuba dissident blogger arrested

MEXICO CITY — Cuba's best-known blogger, a prominent critic of its government, was arrested by authorities, apparently to prevent her from covering the trial of a conservative Spanish politician who is accused of causing the death of a Cuban dissident in a car crash this summer.

The arrest Thursday of Yoani Sanchez and her husband, fellow blogger Reinaldo Escobar, was reported by pro-government Cuban blogs and confirmed Friday by Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

The dissident blogger had intended to cover the trial of Angel Carromero, which began Friday in Bayamo, about 400 miles east of Havana. Carromero, a member of Spain's conservative Popular Party, crashed his rental car near Bayamo while visiting the island July 22. Cuban officials have accused him of speeding and causing the deaths of dissident Oswaldo Paya and another Cuban activist, who were riding in the car. Carromero faces up to 10 years in prison.

The pro-government blog asserted Friday that the blogger had traveled to Bayamo "to start a provocation and a media show to harm the proper conduct of the trial."

Both Sanchez's detention and the controversy surrounding the case offer telling glimpses into the government's relationship with dissident forces in Cuba six years after Raul Castro was handed the reins of government by his ailing older brother, Fidel.

Elizardo Sanchez, the human rights activist who is unrelated to the blogger, said that he expected Yoani Sanchez, her husband and a number of other antigovernment figures detained before the trial to be released soon after its conclusion.

"Political repression in Cuba has undergone a metamorphosis," he said in a phone interview from Cuba on Friday.

"In the last few years it doesn't consist in long prison sentences, but in hundreds and hundreds of detentions each month for political reasons, which last a number of hours, days or a few weeks. And later, in general, the opponents are freed without charges — although sometimes some stay in prison."

Raul Castro has been tinkering with social and market reforms while simultaneously maintaining a level of control over the Cuban people and economy. In a recent report, Elizardo Sanchez's group noted that 2,074 "arbitrary detentions" were reported in Cuba in 2010. That number shot to 5,105 between January and September of this year.

The government has also released dozens of political prisoners in the last three years, but Human Rights Watch researcher Nik Steinberg says that dozens of other dissidents remain in prison. Moreover, he said, the arbitrary detentions, beatings and harassment of dissidents continue to stifle freedom of expression.

At the same time, a space has been afforded opinionated bloggers. Sanchez, who is in her 30s, has emerged in recent years as an important independent voice with lyrical postings on her website, "Generation Y," in which she describes life in communist Cuba, sometimes criticizing the government directly, and sometimes by implication.

Cuba watchers say Sanchez is not widely read in Cuba, where Internet access is scarce, but has gained an important platform beyond the island.

The government has tolerated Sanchez's work, to an extent. She says the government has denied her requests to travel abroad 19 times since 2008. In November 2009, she alleged that she was picked up by men in an unmarked car who called her a "counterrevolutionary," punched her in the face and then released her.

Carromero, the Spaniard, had been visiting Cuba to support Paya and his reform group, the Christian Liberation Movement. Paya's widow has rejected the government version of the crash, saying that the government had threatened to kill her husband on numerous occasions.

Other Paya supporters have alleged that the car was run off the road by Cuban security agents.

Sanchez, in her previous coverage of the case, reported that Spanish officials were hoping Carromero would end up being expelled from Cuba or allowed to serve a sentence in Spain.

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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