IAMI, April 7 — Cuban courts today began handing out prison terms of up to 27 years to dozens of dissidents, including journalists and librarians, who had been advocating democratic reforms, according to human rights groups and news reports from Havana.
The harsh sentences capped five days of trials in which state security agents who had infiltrated dissident groups testified against their supposed colleagues on charges of subversion and collaborating with American diplomats. Almost 80 people were arrested in an islandwide sweep that started last month and that has been condemned by numerous human rights advocates, the European Union and foreign leaders.
Héctor Palacios, a key organizer of the Varela Project, which seeks democratic reforms, was sentenced to 25 years. Marta Beatriz Roque, an independent economist who angered authorities when she invited the chief American diplomat in Cuba to her home in February, received a 20-year sentence.
Omar Rodríguez Saludes, an independent journalist who covered the news scooting around Havana on a battered bicycle, was handed the longest sentence: 27 years.
Cuban authorities said the dissidents had conspired with James Cason, the United States diplomat, and they brought charges against them under a law that makes illegal any support of measures like the American trade embargo that would harm the island's economy or sovereignty. During an appearance at the University of Miami today, Mr. Cason had a one-word reply when asked if he thought — as the Cuban government had suggested — that he provoked the crackdown by his repeated meetings with dissidents.
"Lies," he said.
He defended his contacts with the dissidents as a normal part of his work, saying that the American mission in Havana provided people with books, Internet access and newspaper clippings, among other services. They did not, he said, pay the groups or give them their marching orders, but supported their call for a quick and peaceful transition to democracy.
"We should be clear, the opposition is not a shadow government waiting to move into power," Mr. Cason said in his speech. "They are simply among the few who openly say what so many others believe, that it is time for change. Because they have become such effective advocates, the government attacks them, labeling them subversive traitors."
International groups condemned the sentences, saying those arrested were exercising fundamental freedoms protected by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, of which Cuba is a signer. Several Latin nations have introduced a proposal to censure Cuba at the current session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.
"It's perverse that there's a massive crackdown in Cuba just at the moment that the United Nations is examining Cuba's human rights record," said José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch. "The commission must condemn these abuses, and do so strongly and unequivocally."
Relatives of some dissidents denounced the lengthy prison terms as effective life sentences. Raúl Rivero, a poet and the dean of the island's independent journalists, who was given a 20-year sentence, suffers from phlebitis and other illnesses.
"This is so arbitrary for a man whose only crime is to write what he thinks," said Mr. Rivero's wife, Blanca Reyes. "What they found on him was a tape recorder, not a grenade."
Mr. Cason said that the United States would offer moral support to those who would assume the work of those now in jail.
The Cuban government put limits on Mr. Cason's movements after he traveled some 6,000 miles around the island in his first six months. Some have speculated the government might decide to keep him out of the country, a possibility he accepted.
"They can shoot the messenger if they want," Mr. Cason said. "There will be more messengers coming."