By Nelson Acosta
BAYAMO, Cuba (Reuters) - Cuba arrested a dissident blogger and other activists one day before the start of a Spanish activist's high-profile manslaughter trial, a rights advocate said on Friday, in a move the U.S. State Department said is aimed at silencing critics.
Blogger Yoani Sanchez, her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, and their driver were taken into custody along with a half dozen other local dissidents on Thursday, said Elizardo Sanchez of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights.
Government-linked blogger Yohandry Fontana said authorities were driving Sanchez and Escobar from Bayamo to Havana on Friday afternoon. Their car was being towed back because of its "dreadful mechanical condition," he said.
Government officials had no comment on the arrests. But Fontana said Sanchez was detained because she had gone to Bayamo, 415 miles southeast of Havana, intent on creating a "provocation and media show" at the trial of Spaniard Angel Carromero.
Carromero, who was at the wheel in the July 22 car wreck that killed dissidents Oswaldo Paya and Harold Cepero, went on trial on Friday on manslaughter charges.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner condemned the arrests in a Washington press briefing.
"We are very deeply disturbed by the Cuban government's repeated use of arbitrary detention to silence critics, disrupt peaceful assembly and certainly to impede independent journalism," he said.
"It's very clear that human rights conditions in Cuba remain poor. The Cuban government continues to limit fundamental freedoms, including freedom of speech, including for members of the press," Toner told reporters.
Sanchez, 37, could not be reached by telephone, but she apparently had traveled to Bayamo to write about Carromero's trial.
The newspaper El Pais in Madrid said on its website she was its freelance correspondent.
Sanchez, best known for her blog "Generation Y," has won numerous awards overseas but is never allowed out of Cuba to collect them.
She was reported last week to have filed a complaint against Cuba with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission for repeatedly refusing to grant her a travel visa.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called for her immediate release, saying in a statement on Friday that "Cuba continues to be the most repressive country for the press in the hemisphere and is one of the world's most censored countries."
'I AM SORRY'
Elizardo Sanchez said he expected Sanchez and the others to be released in a matter of hours, because the government now favors short detentions for dissidents.
It views them as mercenaries for the United States and others, and has used the Carromero case to spotlight European involvement with its opposition.
Carromero, leader of the youth wing of Spain's ruling People's Party, said in testimony on Friday he was driving normally and not speeding, as prosecutors have charged, when he ran over a patch of road under repair and lost control of his rental car.
The car slid into a tree, killing Paya, 60, and Cepero, 31.
"Truly, I was not driving too fast," he told a panel of judges, offering his "profound feeling of sorrow for the unfortunate accident."
"I have lost many things in these two months ... . I am sorry," said Carromero, who wore casual clothes and had his head shaved.
Near the end of Friday's proceedings, prosecutor Isabel Barzaga asked the court to sentence the 26-year-old Spaniard, who has been jailed since the accident, to seven years in prison.
"We are in the presence of a person truly reckless," she said referring to his driving.
Paya was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament in 2002 for his Varela Project to bring democratic reform to Cuba's one-party system.
His family has accused the government of having a hand in his death.
Along with Carromero on the ill-fated trip with Paya was Jens Aron Modig, a young activist from Sweden's conservative Christian Democratic Party who said he had given Paya a donation of 4,000 euros ($4,900).
Modig, who was in the front seat and like Carromero received only minor injuries, said the four were on the way to meet Paya's supporters.
He apologized for his part in "illicit activities" and returned to Sweden, where he has kept a low profile.
(Reporting by Jeff Franks,Nelson Acosta and Rosa Tania Valdes in Cuba; Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by David Adams and Xavier Briand)