BAYAMO, Cuba (Reuters) - Cuban authorities released prominent dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez late on Friday after detaining her on the eve of a Spanish activist’s high-profile manslaughter trial in the eastern city of Bayamo.
Sanchez, her husband Reinaldo Escobar, and their driver were taken into custody along with a half dozen other local dissidents on Thursday, said Elizardo Sanchez of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights.
Yoani Sanchez told Reuters in a telephone interview from her Havana home they were stopped by state security agents after they arrived in Bayamo, 415 miles southeast of Havana in their car late Thursday afternoon.
They were taken to a Ministry of Interior facility, separated and treated a little roughly in the beginning, including by female agents who wanted to remove her clothes, Sanchez said. She refused to allow them to do so.
Sanchez said the agents became more cordial, but questioned her for hours and threatened that she would face criminal charges, which never came.
About 11 a.m. on Friday, they told her she and her husband would be driven back to their Havana home, where they arrived around 9 p.m.
“Now I‘m home, with a little stress, but back in my house,” a relieved Sanchez said.
On her Twitter site, Sanchez said she had “many anecdotes to tell” about the experience.
Government officials, who often use brief detentions against dissidents, had no comment on the arrests. But government-linked blogger Yohandry Fontana said Sanchez was detained because she had gone to Bayamo intent on creating a “provocation and media show” at the trial of Spaniard Angel Carromero.
Carromero, who was at the wheel in the July 22 car wreck that killed dissidents Oswaldo Paya and Harold Cepero, went on trial Friday on manslaughter charges.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner condemned the arrests in a Washington press briefing.
“We are very deeply disturbed by the Cuban government’s repeated use of arbitrary detention to silence critics, disrupt peaceful assembly and certainly to impede independent journalism,” he said.
“It’s very clear that human rights conditions in Cuba remain poor. The Cuban government continues to limit fundamental freedoms, including freedom of speech, including for members of the press,” Toner told reporters.
The newspaper El Pais in Madrid said on its website that Sanchez, who it described as its freelance correspondent, had traveled to Bayamo to cover Carromero’s trial.
Sanchez, best known for her blog “Generation Y,” has won numerous awards overseas but is never allowed out of Cuba to collect them.
She was reported last week to have filed a complaint against Cuba with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission for repeatedly refusing to grant her a travel visa.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called for her immediate release, saying in a statement on Friday that “Cuba continues to be the most repressive country for the press in the hemisphere and is one of the world’s most censored countries.”
‘I AM SORRY’
The Cuban government views the dissidents as mercenaries for the United States and others, and has used the Carromero case to spotlight European involvement with its opposition.
Carromero, leader of the youth wing of Spain’s ruling People’s Party, said in testimony on Friday he was driving normally and not speeding, as prosecutors have charged, when he ran over a patch of road under repair and lost control of his rental car.
The car slid into a tree, killing Paya, 60, and Cepero, 31.
“Truly, I was not driving too fast,” he told a panel of judges, offering his “profound feeling of sorrow for the unfortunate accident.”
“I have lost many things in these two months ... . I am sorry,” said Carromero, who wore casual clothes and had his head shaved.
Near the end of Friday’s proceedings, prosecutor Isabel Barzaga asked the court to sentence the 26-year-old Spaniard, jailed since the accident, to seven years in prison.
“We are in the presence of a person truly reckless,” she said referring to his driving.
Paya was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament in 2002 for his Varela Project to bring democratic reform to Cuba’s one-party system.
His family has accused the government of having a hand in his death.
Along with Carromero on the ill-fated trip with Paya was Jens Aron Modig, a young activist from Sweden’s conservative Christian Democratic Party who said he had given Paya a donation of 4,000 euros ($4,900).
Modig, who was in the front seat and like Carromero received only minor injuries, said the four were on their way to meet Paya’s supporters.
He apologized for his part in “illicit activities” and returned to Sweden, where he has kept a low profile.
Reporting by Jeff Franks, Nelson Acosta and Rosa Tania Valdes in Cuba, and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by David Adams, Xavier Briand and Lisa Shumaker