Civil Society, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Press Freedom

RIGHTS-CUBA: Ladies in White Share Sakharov Prize

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Oct 26 2005 (IPS) - The “ladies in white”, wives and mothers of imprisoned dissidents in Cuba, received this year’s Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought Wednesday in recognition of their efforts to obtain the release of their loved ones.

The prize, which has been awarded annually by the European Parliament since 1988, also went this year to Nigerian lawyer Hauwa Ibrahim and the France-based Reporters Without Borders, because the Parliament found itself unable to decide between the three.

Ibrahim defends women sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery in Nigeria and people who have been sentenced to have a limb amputated for theft, under Islamic Sharia law.

Amina Lawal and Safiya Hussaini are two of the women she has saved from being stoned to death after international campaigns in their favour.

Reporters Without Borders defends freedom of the press and fights the persecution of journalists around the world.

“This prize is a big boost to help us continue our struggle, and a commitment to democracy,” Gisela Delgado, the wife of Héctor Palacios, one of the 75 dissidents handed stiff sentences in April 2003, told IPS.

Dressed in white and wearing t-shirts and buttons printed with photos of their loved ones, the “ladies in white” gathered early Wednesday in the home of Laura Pollán, one of the members who is best known among diplomats and the international media.

“This afternoon we will attend mass in the Santa Rita church to give thanks to the Virgin Mary, who has been a support for us in these difficult years,” said Delgado.

“This bouquet of white gladiolus is for her (the Virgin Mary),” said another activist, pointing to flowers in a vase.

There are symbols of the group in Pollán’s crowded living room, including white doves painted on the wall and a banner with the colours of the Cuban flag, that carries the names of each of the 75 imprisoned opposition activists.

Pollán and several other women were called early Wednesday to the European Union delegation office in Havana, where they met with EU business attaché Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff and other European officials.

After the meeting, Pollán said they would try to travel to Europe to receive the prize in December. “We are going to fight to the last moment to go and receive the prize,” which she considered a recognition and backing for the group by the international community.

The prize, named after late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989), a physicist, is awarded annually to groups dedicated to defending human rights, protecting minorities, and promoting international cooperation, democracy and the rule of law.

The award, which carries a cash prize of 50,000 euros (around 60,000 dollars), will be bestowed by the European Parliament in a ceremony held in the northeastern French city of Strasbourg on or around Dec. 10, the anniversary of the 1948 signing of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This year, the 50,000 euros will be shared by the three winners.

The decision to grant the award to the ladies in white was praised by dissident leaders like Oswaldo Payá, the head of the Christian Liberation Movement, who received the Sakharov Prize himself in 2002.

The women, who march silently every Sunday down an avenue in Havana, “have publicly defied the fear of repression that is felt by so many,” he said in a statement distributed by fax.

Payá, who launched the Varela Project, a referendum initiative seeking political changes in Cuba’s four-decade-old socialist system, received authorisation from the government of Fidel Castro to travel to France to personally receive the prize in late 2002.

Héctor Espinoza Chepe, one of 14 of the original 75 imprisoned dissidents who have been released on parole for health reasons since last year, said Cuban authorities should “take the prize into consideration and draw their own political conclusions.”

In his opinion, the prize should lead to “steps towards openness” by the government, and to the release of the rest of the dissidents, who he described as “peaceful people, who do not advocate violence but are calling for negotiated reconciliation.”

But diplomats in Havana predicted that the prize would only exacerbate the irritation of local authorities over European support for dissidents, whose small organisations are illegal and who the government considers “mercenaries” on the payroll of the United States.

In summary trials held in April 2003, the 75 dissidents were handed sentences of up to 28 years, on charges of conspiring with Washington to destabilise the Cuban state.

In response, the EU adopted a series of measures that upset the Cuban government, especially the decision to invite members of opposition groups to the receptions held in European embassies in Havana on the countries’ national days.

Although the measures were lifted in January, the chilly relations between Cuba and the EU have not completely thawed. Some European ambassadors decided to hold two different receptions, in order to separately invite dissidents and government officials.

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