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Catholic Church condemns assaults on Cuba dissidents

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By Jeff Franks

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba's Catholic Church denounced on Monday recent rough treatment of dissidents by supporters of the Cuban state, saying violence against "defenseless persons" could not be justified.

In a statement, the Church said it was told by the island's communist government that it had not ordered the assaults on the dissidents, but this assertion was greeted with skepticism by one of Cuba's leading human rights activists.

In recent weeks, the dissident group Ladies in White and other activists have accused government supporters and police of assaults and detentions in Havana and in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, where a new Ladies in White chapter has been formed.

"It is well known, and we have reiterated it on various occasions, that violence of any kind, applied to defenseless persons, has no justification," the Catholic Church said.

It went on to say that "the Cuban government ... has communicated to the Church that the order to assault these persons came from no national decision-making center."

Cuba's government has said so-called "acts of repudiation" against dissidents arise spontaneously from its supporters, although foreign diplomats say they are orchestrated by the state.

MEETING WITH CHURCH

Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission of Human Rights, said any orders for the harassment of anti-government activists would have to come "from the highest level of the government", including President Raul Castro.

"I am sure that General Raul Castro, at least, approved or gave the order to use force in the past few weeks," he said.

He said it was possible that "more brutality" than that officially intended was used by those executing the orders.

Sanchez preferred not to speculate on the church's motives for including the government denial in its statement, saying only that "the Church here has always had to be very careful."

Ladies in White leaders met with Church officials last week to ask that Cardinal Jaime Ortega intervene on their behalf as he did last year when they suffered several acts of public harassment by pro-government militants.

The cardinal, who is Archbishop of Havana, negotiated an agreement with President Castro in 2010 to allow the women to continue silent protest marches they have conducted every Sunday in Havana's Miramar section. They say they have been harassed when they tried to stage protests elsewhere.

The Sunday marches began in March 2003 to demand the release of 75 family members jailed in a crackdown on dissidents, whom Cuban leaders view as mercenaries for the United States, the government's longtime ideological foe.

As part of the agreement with Ortega, Castro freed 115 political prisoners, including those remaining from the crackdown. The Ladies in White say about 65 political prisoners are still behind bars, so they continue marching.

In Santiago de Cuba, they say members in their new chapter have been beaten, detained and in one case gassed by police.

(Reporting by Jeff Franks; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Cynthia Osterman)