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Freed Czechs arrive home after month held in Cuba

Freed Czechs arrive home after month held in Cuba

Two prominent Czechs, jailed in Cuba for meeting anti-Castro dissidents, arrived home on Tuesday night after a public confession earned their release.

A gaunt former Czech finance minister Ivan Pilip and ex-Velvet Revolution student leader Jan Bubenik arrived at Prague airport at 8:55 p.m. (1955 GMT), after a month-long ordeal which further soured relations between the one-time Socialist allies.

"Right now I feel lucky to have made it back, that it is over," said Pilip, grinning widely as he was reunited with his three children. His wife Lucie had visited him in Cuba and flew back with him.

"I can't say how happy I am to be back in our country after this past month. I can't thank the missions, one after another, that came to help plead our case," added Bubenik.

On Monday the pair admitted at an extraordinary meeting at Cuba's Foreign Ministry they had unwittingly broken Cuban law by meeting dissidents opposed to President Fidel Castro's one-party communist system, at the behest of a U.S. organisation.

Their mea culpa - a signed statement read to foreign diplomats and Cuban officials - seemed to save face all round by satisfying Havana's demand for an apology.

Prague condemned their arrest from the outset as a violation of human rights. The pair insisted they had no idea that what they were doing was a crime.

"The Czech Republic has nothing to apologise for. We tried to defend them from the beginning because we were deeply convinced they did not do anything criminal," said Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan, himself a former dissident.

"There is hope that this could lead to a renewal of economic relations but also in other areas including political dialogue."

SUBVERSIVE CONTACTS

In their confession, the pair acknowledged travelling to Cuba in collaboration with U.S.-based Freedom House, known for its opposition to Castro's government.

Havana was apparently more irked by the Czechs' contact with Freedom House than by their meeting with dissidents. U.S. officials say Freedom House is an ordinary non-governmental organisation, but Havana calls it a CIA-inspired body.

Pilip and Bubenik were detained in the central province of Ciego de Avila, accused of having "subversive contacts" with local activists, and then held at the Villa Marista state security detention centre in Havana.

It took days for Czech officials to establish what had happened. "We didn't even know if anyone knew of what had happened to us, or where we were," Pilip said.

Czech President Vaclav Havel, a former anti-communist dissident, and other Czech leaders refused to criticise the pair and instead condemned their arrest.

Pilip said it had been his second visit to the island, and that during his first in 1999 he met "more than 20 dissidents".

The two freed men are to meet Havel on Wednesday.

Socialist-era Cuban-Czech friendship evaporated after communism's demise in Eastern Europe a decade ago. In 2000 the Czechs co-sponsored a joint resolution at a U.N. forum accusing Cuba of human rights violations.

About 100,000 Cubans rallied at the time outside the Czech Embassy in Havana in a state-organized protest against the motion, which was passed at the U.N. Human Rights' Commission. Havana directed particular wrath at Havel.

Havana has accused its former ally of becoming a "traitor, lackey and puppet" of "Yankee imperialism". Cuba views all local dissidents as pro-U.S. "counter-revolutionaries".


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