ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

If anyone thought Cubans would have more freedom under their new leader Raul Castro, Human Rights Watch says, think again. The watchdog group issued a report today saying Fidel Castro's brother has kept a repressive machinery firmly in place.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has that story.

MICHELE KELEMEN: A researcher for Human Rights Watch, Nik Steinberg, did a series of phone interviews and spent a couple of weeks traveling around Cuba. He says he documented more than 40 cases of political prisoners since Fidel Castro put his brother Raul in charge.

Mr. NIK STEINBERG (Researcher, Human Rights Watch): One former political prisoner I spoke to was picked up at 5:50 in the morning, sentenced in a closed trial at 8:30 that same morning and sent to prison the same day. His crime was belonging to an unofficial political group. His charge was dangerousness.

KELEMEN: He says that's a provision in the Cuban criminal code.

Mr. STEINBERG: The dangerousness provision is not a new law. It was on the books before Raul Castro came to power. But it has become Raul Castro's repressive tool of choice.

KELEMEN: Some analysts have seen the emergence of bloggers in Cuba as a sign that Raul Castro is opening up the political system a bit. But Nik Steinberg says he discovered the limits of that. A prominent blogger, Yoani Sanchez, was recently beaten, adding to the climate of fear. And Steinberg says only a tiny fraction of Cubans even have access to the Internet and the blogs.

Mr. STEINBERG: One of the bloggers who we feature in this report said that he's never himself been able to see his own blog. So, in fact, with the blogs we think it's wonderful that they're there, but we shouldn't overestimate the space that the government is allowing for them to exist.

KELEMEN: A spokesman at the Cuban Interest Section here in Washington said his country doesn't recognize either the legality or the moral authority of Human Rights Watch. The Cuban official, Alberto Gonzalez, told NPR that the group has a long history of misrepresenting the Cuban reality. He also complained that the report came out on the eve of an important congressional hearing on lifting a travel ban on Cuba.

Human Rights Watch has advocated lifting the travel ban and the nearly 50-year-old trade embargo, but the deputy director of the organization's Americas division Daniel Wilkinson suggested today that the Obama administration should first work with other countries to come up with targeted sanctions to pressure Cuba to release political prisoners.

Mr. DANIEL WILKINSON (Deputy Director, Americas Division, Human Rights Watch): What we're proposing is that the United States lift the trade embargo and work with other democratic governments to forge an international coalition to press Cuba on one single concrete issue: the political prisoners.

KELEMEN: He says ultimately it's up to Congress to lift the embargo and that's unlikely unless the Obama administration can convince lawmakers that other nations are on board with a new approach to promoting human rights in Cuba.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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