January 29, 2001

Czech Senate leader flies to Cuba over detainees

                  HAVANA, Cuba (Reuters) -- A Czech official flew on Monday to Cuba in an
                  effort to break the diplomatic deadlock over the fate of two prominent Czechs
                  arrested on the communist-run island after meeting with dissidents.

                  Czech Senate leader Petr Pithart was headed to Havana at President Fidel
                  Castro's invitation after Pithart wrote seeking the release of ex-finance minister
                  and current legislator, Ivan Pilip, and former student leader Jan Bubenik.

                  "Hopefully this may lead to some solutions," Pilip's wife, Lucie Pilipova, told
                  Reuters in Havana where she came to visit her husband in jail. "It is very
                  important both sides start to communicate. This visit could be a positive

                  Havana wants Prague to admit the men were wrong to sustain "subversive"
                  contacts with activists.

                  But President Vaclav Havel -- himself a former anti-communist dissident -- and
                  other Czech authorities have condemned the arrests as a human rights' abuse.

                  The visit of Pithart, who was expected to arrive in Cuba on Monday night,
                  would be the first high-level contact between the two countries since the arrests
                  earlier this month.

                  "We imagine that Mr. Pithart will return very soon in a plane with Pilip and
                  Bubenik on board," said a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Prague, adding they
                  might be back this week.

                  In a case that has also drawn strong protests from Europe and Washington,
                  Cuba insists the two men broke local laws and were operating on the instructions
                  of the U.S.-based Freedom House organization, known for its opposition to

                  Cuba says Freedom House financed their trip and gave them names and
                  addresses of dissidents, as well as a computer to give to their contacts.

                  If tried under Cuba's local penal code, the pair would be charged with "acts
                  against the security of the state."

                  Pilip's wife, who has visited her husband daily at Havana's Villa Marista detention
                  center, said Pilip and Bubenik were in relatively good spirits.

                  "Ivan didn't know he was breaking Cuban law," she said.

                  The incident has further embittered what were already poor relations between the
                  former Socialist-era allies. Their friendship fell away after communism's demise
                  in Eastern Europe a decade ago, and plunged further in 2000 when the Czechs
                  co-sponsored a U.N. resolution alleging Cuban rights' violations.

                  A senior member of Cuba's Catholic Church visited Pilip in jail in recent days and
                  said he found the Czech to be "very serene."

                  "He is a practicing Catholic, and he asked to see a priest," Monsignor Carlos
                  Manuel de Cespedes said, noting it was unusual for Cuban authorities to allow
                  the Church to visit a state security detention center.

                  "Physically he is fine," he said.

                  Pilip and Bubenik were arrested on January 12 in the central province of Ciego
                  de Avila after meeting a dissident journalist and a human rights activist there.
                  Castro's government regards all dissidents as U.S.-backed
                  "counter-revolutionaries" and outlaws all overt opposition activism.

                  The two Ciego de Avila dissidents -- Antonio Femenias and Roberto Valdivia --
                  denied receiving anything from the Czechs and said it was a "normal" meeting.

                  Pithart wrote a letter offering Castro a personal guarantee that Pilip and Bubenik
                  were not American agents and calling for their release, Czech officials said.

                      Copyright 2001 Reuters.