HAVANA (AP) – Cuba pressed forward with its harshest crackdown on dissent in years, holding the first trials yesterday for dissidents rounded up across the island and reportedly seeking life sentences for at least 12 of them.

At least 80 dissidents have been arrested since March 18, accused of working with U.S. diplomats to subvert Fidel Castro’s government and of being mercenaries in the pay of Washington.

Rising tensions with the United States have coincided with a string of hijackings by Cubans trying to leave the communist island. On Wednesday, gunmen forced a Cuban ferry to head toward Florida; the boat returned to Cuba yesterday morning. Two airliners recently were hijacked to Key West, Fla., one on March 19 and a second on Tuesday.

As international criticism of the crackdown increased, the wives of several dissidents complained Wednesday that their husbands were unable to consult with attorneys and had not even seen the prosecution’s written case against them.

“I feel so defenseless!” said Elsa Pollan, whose husband, Hector Fernando Maseda was going on trial yesterday. “Where can I find someone to defend my husband?”

Prosecutors are seeking life sentences for 12, including opposition political leaders Osvaldo Alfonso Valdes and Hector Palacios, who were being tried together with Maseda and three others, said veteran activist Elizardo Sanchez.

An updated three-page list compiled by Sanchez’s Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation and released early yesterday increased the number of confirmed defendants from 78 to 80.

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