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US-based press freedom group criticizes charges against writer, detentions of dissidents

A U.S.-based press freedom group urged Cuban authorities Friday to drop charges against a writer for an anti-Castro website who reported detentions of government opponents and criticism of the country's response to Hurricane Sandy.

The Committee to Project Journalists said Cuba filed charges of "disseminating false information against international peace" this week against Yaremis Flores for articles published on Miami-based CubaNet, a news and commentary site that takes a critical line against President Raul Castro's government.

Among her writings, she noted criticism of how authorities dealt with Hurricane Sandy, which hit eastern Cuba on Oct. 25, killing 11 people, damaging more than 200,000 homes and knocking out power for hundreds of thousands of people. Power was out for days in Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city.

Flores' arrest led a group of at least 16 dissidents, including noted blogger Yoani Sanchez, to gather at a Havana police station Thursday and demand information about her case. They were taken into custody and freed after a few hours.

CubaNet's website says its mission is to support free press and a civil society that can promote democracy and "balance the power of the government."

Cuban officials, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday evening, consider such efforts counter-revolutionary. They frequently dismiss the island's small but outspoken community of dissidents as mercenaries in the pay of foreign interests.

Last week, the Foreign Ministry accused the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which Washington maintains instead of an embassy, of engaging in subversive activity by providing classes and Internet access without permission.

Cuba cleared its jails last year of the last of 75 activists and social commentators sentenced to long prison terms in a 2003 crackdown. But rights monitors complain that quick-hit detentions are increasingly common, with authorities holding dissidents for a few hours or up to a day or two before driving them home uncharged.

"Cuban authorities talk about reform, but they still treat simple criticism of government activities as a crime," Carlos Lauria, senior Americas coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement. "Yaremis Flores should be released immediately, the charges against her should be dropped and any protester still in detention should be freed."

The Inter American Press Association had just named Sanchez its delegate in Cuba when she was detained alongside others including Guillermo Farinas, former winner of the European Union's Sakharov human rights prize.

A pro-government blogger who uses the online name Yohandry Fonta accused the activists of trying to stir up unrest.

"The pro-American blogger Yoani Sanchez was arrested ... for disrupting public order and social indiscipline," Fontana wrote.

By late Thursday, Sanchez tweeted that she was once again walking the streets of Havana after a few hours in custody.

"I am fine!" Sanchez wrote. "Thanks for the solidarity."

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Peter Orsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter_Orsi