Cuban Police Confront Peaceful Women Protesters Pushing for Release of Political Prisoners

Police broke up a peaceful sit-in by a small group of women demanding the release of their jailed husbands Monday, forcing them aboard a bus at a park near the offices of Cuban President Raul Castro and driving them home.

The 10 women, half of them members of the "Ladies in White" dissident group, gathered early Monday at the park beside Havana's famed Revolution Square.

Every Sunday, the group holds a silent protest march down Havana's busy Fifth Avenue, demanding the release of relatives jailed during a March 2003 roundup of 75 activists, dissidents and independent journalists.

The U.S. State Department considers the 75 "prisoners of conscience," and has repeatedly called for their release.

The demonstration Monday was broken up after three hours when a bus carrying more than 20 uniformed policewomen arrived. The protesters locked arms and refused requests to leave, prompting officers to pin them to the ground with their arms behind their backs, said Berta de Los Angeles Soler, whose activist husband, Angel Moya, is serving a 20-year prison term.

Soler said the women were carried onto the bus and driven home. Seven participants were taken out of the capital to their homes in other provinces.

"They did not hit us. There was no violence," Soler said.

She said the protest started out quietly, but when authorities arrived a mob of mostly female government supporters spilled out of official buildings and shouted obscenities at demonstrators. The protesters responded from the bus with chants of "Freedom! Freedom!"

Protests, relatively rare in Cuba, are often broken up quickly by plainclothes security forces, though the officers on Monday wore police uniforms.

In 2005, the Ladies in White appeared in the same park behind the plaza's monument to independence hero Jose Marti and delivered a letter to authorities demanding the release of all Cuban political prisoners.

Since the 2003 crackdown, 16 of the original 75 have since been released on medical parole and four more were freed into forced exile in Spain last month.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.