BAYAMO, Cuba (AP) — A Spanish political activist went on trial Friday in Cuba, accused of negligently causing the car crash that killed a prominent dissident. Several government opponents including noted blogger Yoani Sanchez were detained around this eastern city where the proceedings were taking place.
The defendant, Angel Carromero, arrived at a courthouse in Bayamo, about 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of the capital and near the site of the July 22 highway crash in which Oswaldo Paya and another dissident, Harold Cepero, died.
Authorities accused Carromero of speeding and charged him with the equivalent of vehicular manslaughter, which carries a possible penalty of up to 10 years under Cuban law. In videotaped statements, the Spaniard has said he lost control upon driving onto an unpaved section of road and the vehicle skidded into a tree.
His defense argued Friday that it was impossible to determine the exact velocity of the vehicle and asked for him to be released to house arrest.
"We will see how it all comes out. We are optimistic," said Spanish consul Tomas Rodriguez, who was observing the trial.
Bloggers in Bayamo reported that Sanchez, whose candid writing about daily life in Cuba earned her both international acclaim and the enmity of authorities, was detained by local officials shortly before reaching the city.
Calls to Sanchez's cellphone went unanswered, but human rights monitor Elizardo Sanchez in Havana also reported the detentions Thursday night of Sanchez; her husband, Reinaldo Escobar; and a third man in the vehicle. He said at least a half-dozen other dissidents also were detained in and around Bayamo.
Yoani and Elizardo Sanchez are not related.
Her detention was condemned by Amnesty International and media watchdog groups, including the Inter American Press Association and the Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as the U.S. government.
"We are deeply disturbed by the Cuban government's repeated use of arbitrary detention to silence critics, disrupt peaceful assembly and impede independent journalism," State Department spokesman William Ostick said.
The Spanish newspaper El Pais, for which Yoani Sanchez writes a column, said she traveled to Bayamo to cover the trial.
But a prominent pro-government blogger who uses the handle Yohandry Fontana accused Sanchez of planning to "attempt a provocation and media show that would damage the proper development of the trial."
The government did not confirm the detentions and rarely does in such cases.
In the afternoon, the same pro-government blogger said authorities were taking Sanchez and her husband back to Havana.
Wearing khakis and a white dress shirt and with his head shaved, Carromero arrived in a white van at the blue-painted courthouse in Bayamo on Friday morning. He was escorted by Cuban security agents and did not speak to reporters outside the building.
Police patrolled the surrounding blocks and nearby streets were closed to traffic.
Relatives of Paya traveled to Bayamo but complained that they were denied access to the courthouse. Rosa Maria Paya, his daughter, reiterated the family's doubts about whether her father's death was truly an accident.
"We are asking for an alternative investigation, and that is the only thing that will give us the truth," she said.
Carromero, who is affiliated with a youth wing of Spain's ruling conservative party. He and Aron Modig of Sweden, also a political activist in his home country, came to Cuba to support the island's dissidents, who are branded traitors and mercenaries by the Cuban government.
They were driving to eastern Cuba with Paya and Cepero in the back seat when the crash happened. The Europeans, who were in the front and wearing seatbelts, were not seriously injured.
Modig returned to Sweden a little over a week after the accident.
Paya, 60, was famous for leading the Varela Project, a petition that gathered thousands of signatures calling for a referendum on rights such as freedom of speech and assembly.
The European Union awarded Paya its Sakharov human rights prize in 2002 in recognition of the project.
Associated Press writers Andrea Rodriguez in Havana and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.