Published Sunday, September 5, 1999, in the Miami Herald

Cuba says it will hear appeal of hunger striker

Herald Staff Writer

Jailed Cuban dissident Marta Beatriz Roque called off a debilitating hunger strike Saturday after the government agreed to answer an appeal of her conviction on sedition charges, supporters in Miami reported.

Whether her appeal will be approved or denied is not known, but Roque's supporters proclaimed the government move a triumph for her demand that the Cuban regime at least obey its own judicial procedures.

``Total victory! trumpeted Ruth Montaner, a Miami human rights activist who spoke by phone with Roque's relatives in Havana. ``Whatever the decision, her hunger strike was to demand an answer, and she's getting one.

The State Security official handling her case, Juan Soroa, visited Roque Saturday and promised her the courts would answer her appeal this week, perhaps as early as Monday, Montaner said.

Government officials could not be reached for comment, and the Cuban media have not reported at all on Roque's long hunger strike, which had raised concerns for her life among supporters.

An about-face

The government's agreement came only one day after two State Security officials had visited Roque at the hospital and told her the hospital's staff would make no attempt to keep her from dying.

Human rights activists saw the about-face as a victory for efforts by dissidents on the island to force President Fidel Castro's government to follow its own laws and judicial procedures.

``Not only does the government have repressive laws that can put you in jail for merely thinking negative thoughts about the Castro regime, but it often doesn't even follow its own legal procedures, Montaner said.

Roque, 54, is a member of Cuba's best-known dissident faction, the ``Group of Four, accused of sedition for issuing a 1997 manifesto that attacked the Cuban Communist Party's decades-old monopoly on power.

They were convicted in a one-day trial in March that was closed to journalists and foreign diplomats. Roque was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison, Rene Gomez Manzano and Felix Bonne received four-year terms, and Vladimiro Roca was sentenced to five years.

The four quickly became the focus of international concerns over Cuba's human rights record, with the United States, Canada, Spain and several other nations and groups demanding that Cuba free them.

Hunger strike ends

Roque filed an appeal March 26 but received no answer and began refusing to speak and eat solid foods in mid-June. She was quickly transferred to the prison wing of Carlos J. Finlay Military Hospital in Havana.

Cuban regulations set no time limit for replying to judicial appeals, requiring only that responses be issued ``in a timely manner.

Roque notched up her hunger strike on Thursday, refusing to take even liquids and breaking her vow of silence only to tell visiting relatives that she was ready to die if the government did not answer her appeal.

An extremely debilitated Roque drank water and ate solid food again Saturday, Montaner said the relatives in Havana told her.

Havana has been rife with rumors that Castro will soon release Roque, Gomez and Bonne in a bid to burnish Cuba's image before up to 20 heads of government gather in Havana in November for an Iberoamerican summit.

The three have already served enough of their sentences to qualify for early release. Roca, son of a senior Communist Party official, the late Blas Roca, must serve six more months before he qualifies.

Copyright 1999 Miami Herald