BAYAMO, Cuba (AP) — A Spanish political activist was tried Friday on charges of negligently causing the car crash that killed a prominent Cuban dissident. Several government opponents including noted blogger Yoani Sanchez were detained around this eastern city where the proceedings were taking place.
Defendant Angel Carromero's trial wrapped up in the evening 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, and prosecutors asked the court for a seven-year sentence. In videotaped statements, the Spaniard has said he lost control upon driving onto an unpaved section of road under repair and the vehicle skidded into a tree.
Carromero's attorney argued Friday that it was impossible to determine the exact velocity of the vehicle, showed photographs of allegedly poor road signs warning of the upcoming roadwork that have since been replaced and asked for him to be acquitted. Carromero did not testify.
A panel of judges will now consider the evidence and issue a ruling at an unspecified future date.
Spanish consul Tomas Rodriguez, who observed the proceedings, called the hearing "a clean, open and procedurally impeccable trial."
"From the Spanish point of view, there are reasons to be optimistic," he added. "I am practically sure that there will be a reduction in the sentence. I think it will be significant."
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.
Earlier Friday, 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.