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Wednesday, February 17, 1999 Published at 12:16 GMT

World: Americas

Cuba crackdown on dissent and crime

Brothers Fidel and Raul Castro in conversation

The Cuban National Assembly has approved legisation stipulating stiff penalties for political dissent and common crime.

The laws were presented to the assembly by Cuban President Fidel Castro earlier this week.

One law proposes the death sentence for serious cases of drug trafficking, and life imprisonment for violent robbery.

The BBC's Tom Gibb in Havana: "Far from opening up politically, Castro is once again clamping down"
The other stipulates jail sentences of up to 30 years for those found guilty of "collaborating" with the United States Government.

Anyone convicted of disseminating subversive information would also face jail, as would anyone maintaining relations with the foreign media so as to resist US attempts to undermine Cuba's economy and society.

That would include a number of dissident Cuban journalists who publish critical articles abroad, particularly in the US.

'Enemy's strategy'

President Castro defended the application of the death penalty to crimes like drug-trafficking, saying they damaged Cuba's image and played into the hands of its enemies.

"We have to save the country as this is an absolute priority," Mr Castro said to an extraordinary meeting of the island's National Assembly.

"The enemy ... promotes crime. Crime has become a counter-revolutionary instrument because of the damage it has inflicted. Crimes discourage and weaken society. It is part of the enemy's strategy to destroy the revolution," he said in a clear reference to the US.

Reaction to US measures

The BBC Havana Correspondent, Tom Gibb, says the new legislation is partly a response to the dramatic increase in violent crime.

But is also a reaction to President Bill Clinton's announcement last month of plans to modify the long-standing US economic embargo against Cuba.

President Clinton said the changes were designed to make the embargo more flexible.

The Cubans, however, say the measures, which make it easier for private US groups to send money to the island, are subversive.

There has been a dramatic increase in violent crime on the island in the last year.

President Castro accused the US of using this to try to sully and demoralise the country.

For the last month, the police have been arresting all the prostitutes and hustlers once common on the streets of Havana.

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