Leader of Cuban Dissident Group in Intensive Care

HAVANA -- The founder of a prominent Cuban dissident group, the Ladies in White, was hospitalized for acute respiratory problems and was in intensive care Saturday, her associates said.

Laura Pollan went to a hospital Friday and was in serious but stable condition the following morning, said Bertha Soler, another member of the group.

"She is very, very grave," Soler said by phone from the hospital. "They told us she has an acute respiratory deficiency," and the doctors "think the cause is viral."

Pollan fell ill and was vomiting last weekend, and was seen by doctors twice this week before going to the hospital on Friday, Soler said.

The 63-year-old formed the Ladies in White in 2003 along with other wives of 75 activists, social commentators and opposition leaders who were arrested that year and sentenced to long prison terms. Pollan's husband, Hector Maseda, was among those sentenced to 25 years in prison.

For years the Ladies pressed for their release by staging weekly marches through the streets of the capital, wearing white and holding gladiolas.

On occasion, they have been met by rowdy pro-government crowds who surround the women, shouting insults and revolutionary slogans. The government accuses the Ladies in White and other dissidents of being mercenaries in the service of Washington.

The last of those jailed in the 2003 crackdown have been released over the past year under a deal brokered by the Roman Catholic Church, and many went into exile with their families.

However the Ladies have continued to march and even expanded their activities outside the capital. They said they were refocusing their demands on the release of about 50 other, lesser-known prisoners. Most of those were arrested for politically motivated but violent crimes such as sabotage and hijacking, which disqualifies them from consideration by Amnesty International as "prisoners of conscience."

"We are going to continue," Pollan told The Associate Press in a recent interview. "We are fighting for freedom and human rights."