HAVANA A group of Cuban women peacefully demonstrating for the release of their jailed husbands were roughed up by a mob and arrested, then released, on Monday near the offices of President Raul Castro.
The 10 women, members of an organization known as the "Women in White," gathered at a park at the edge of Cuba's Revolution Square, near government and Communist Party headquarters.
They wore white T-shirts emblazoned with the faces and names of their loved ones, but carried no signs.
"We are here to demand the release of our husbands and won't leave until they are free or they arrest us. We have waited long enough, we want to talk to the new president," group leader Laura Pollan said.
Moments later, a bus pulled up and about 20 female corrections officers tried to arrest the women, who sat on the sidewalk, clasped arms and refused to move.
"They are dying, they are dying," one women yelled with tears in her eyes.
A mob of about 100 government supporters, mainly women from nearby government buildings, quickly entered the fray, yelling insults while pushing the women, picking them up and shoving them into the waiting bus.
"After forcing them into the bus they dropped the Havana residents at their homes and sent the others back to their homes in the provinces," Marta Bonachea, a spokesperson for the women, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
The women's husbands and other relatives were arrested in a massive government crackdown in 2003, which landed 75 dissidents in prison for long terms on charges of working with the United States to subvert the government.
Fifty-five of the dissidents remain behind bars.
Raul Castro became Cuba's first new president in nearly 50 years in February, when he took over for his ailing brother Fidel Castro.
Various governments and international organizations have expressed the hope he would loosen political restrictions in the one-party socialist state.
Protests are rare in Cuba. In the past, similar actions have been broken up by government supporters and the protesters held for a few hours before being released.
The Cuban government contends all its opponents are paid and organized by its enemy, the United States.
The illegal but tolerated Cuban Commission for Human Rights estimates there are 230 people in prison in Cuba for expressing their political views, serving sentences of up to 28 years.
Amnesty International has deemed 58 of them prisoners of conscience who are imprisoned solely for the peaceful expression of beliefs.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu)