HAVANA Cuba launched a blistering attack on the wives of imprisoned dissidents on Tuesday, accusing them of working with its arch-enemy, the United States, to subvert one-party socialist rule.
The women, known as the "Ladies in White", have staged an unprecedented series of small demonstrations since their husbands were arrested in a political crackdown in 2003 that landed 75 dissidents in prison on charges of working for the U.S. government. Fifty-five remain behind bars.
On Monday, 10 of the women staged a sit-in next to Havana's Revolution Square to demand that President Raul Castro's government release their relatives. They were detained, put on a bus and driven home by police.
A government statement carried by Cuba's official media attacked the women's protest for being a "provocation ... ordered by their Yankee masters".
State-run television showed photos of the women meeting with Michael Parmly, the head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which a commentator called "the headquarters of the Cuban counterrevolution."
Havana denies there are any political prisoners in Cuba and labels all opponents as "mercenaries" on the U.S. payroll.
The "Ladies in White," who earned their name by marching silently every Sunday along a Havana boulevard dressed in white, were unfazed by the government attack.
"We were born out of government repression and we have no particular political agenda," said one of their founders, Miriam Leiva. "Our objective is purely humanitarian, to free the prisoners of March 2003."
Around 100 government supporters arrived at Monday's sit-in shouting slogans and insults at the women and later helped police remove them, in some cases by dragging them to the bus.
The government said it intervened to save the women from a spontaneous outburst by angry patriots.
The television newscast did not show images of the rough treatment. Instead, it played excerpts of a telephone conference call the women held on Friday with U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who is a staunch anti-Castro voice in Congress.
Cuba accused the Cuban-born legislator of encouraging the women to destabilize the country.
"It is all a big farce and the government is manipulating the information," said Berta Soler, one of Monday's protesters whose husband Angel Moya is serving a 20-year prison term.
"The government did not show the images of us being yanked around, dragged and kicked," she said.
The illegal but tolerated Cuban Commission for Human Rights estimates there are more than 200 people in prison in Cuba for political reasons serving sentences of up to 28 years.
Amnesty International recognizes 58 as prisoners of conscience who are jailed solely for peacefully expressing their beliefs.
(Additional reporting by Esteban Israel and Nelson Acosta, editing by Alan Elsner)