by CNN Wire Staff

Havana, Cuba (CNN) — Cuba has stepped up its harassment of dissidents in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, with authorities beating, gassing and arresting protesters critical of the Communist government, human rights activists said Wednesday.

During the past five weekends, the government has strongly repressed peaceful protests in several eastern cities, said Elizardo Sanchez, the head of the island’s unofficial Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. In at least one case, in the town of Palma Soriano, forces used gas — either pepper spray or tear gas — against one family, Sanchez said.

Among those targeted are the Ladies in White, a group of mothers, sisters and friends of jailed dissidents who hold regular marches, said Berta Soler, one of its founding members.

“Starting on July 17, the government has been responsible for criminal, violent acts against women who only want to go to the church for Mass, to pray and ask for freedom for political prisoners,” Soler told CNN.

Demonstrations in the neighborhoods of El Cobre and Palmarita Soriano were also squelched violently, he said. In all, at least 65 men and women were arrested by the country’s secret police, his commission said.

In one of the most recent incidents, on Sunday morning, a group of female dissidents were beaten and detained as they headed to Mass at the Palma Soriano’s cathedral, Sanchez said. In protest of this act, two dissident groups declared they would hold closed-door vigils in certain homes, he said.

On Sunday evening, one of the homes was raided by riot police, Sanchez said. The government forces mistreated the 30 people at the home and destroyed many of the home’s furnishings, he said.

The Cuban government has not commented on the allegations. But Soler said she attended Sunday’s protest, “and I was beaten just like them.” She said she asked Cuba’s Roman Catholic cardinal, Jaime Ortega, “to tell the government to stop the violent, repressive actions against the Ladies in White and also human rights activists.”

“Once again, we, the Ladies in White, will continue,” Soler said. “As long as there are political prisoners, we will keep fighting for them.”

The ladies got a recent word of encouragement from popular Cuban singer Pablo Milanes, whose recent performance in Miami was met by protests by some exile groups. In an open letter to Miami radio commentator Edmundo Garcia, published online and excerpted in the Spanish newspaper El Nuevo Herald, Milanes called attacks on the women by pro-government demonstrators “vile” and “cowardly.”

Soler said Milanes should keep up that criticism when he’s back home.

“For us, it’s very good that Pablo Milanes showed solidarity or at least sensitivity to the pain that the Ladies in White and people in Cuba are suffering,” she said. “It’s very important that he return to Cuba and maintain it.”

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