Cuba dissident leaders receive jail sentences following heavily-critiqued trial

HAVANA (Reuters) - A Cuban court sentenced a leading artist-dissident to nine years in jail on Friday and another to five years in a high profile case that human rights groups branded a "farce" but that Cuban state media said was a fair trial over "common crimes."

The activists, Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara and Maykel Castillo, are prominent members of the Havana-based San Isidro Movement, an artists collective that led a number of protests over two years. Many of the group have since left Cuba, alleging government repression.

Otero Alcantara was sentenced to five years in jail for defaming the national flag, contempt and public disorder, according to a statement Friday from Cuba's Prosecutor's Office, while Castillo was sentenced to nine years for similar crimes, as well as assault.

The cases of the two men have become a rallying cry for activists and human rights groups, who say Cuba has ramped up repression in the wake of anti-government protests last July, the largest since former President Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.

Amnesty International has called the two activists "prisoners of conscience." Both men, who appeared in a music video for the unofficial anthem of the protests, "Patria y Vida," were held in jail for a year prior to their trials in May.

Juan Pappier of Human Rights Watch told Reuters following the sentencing that the trial was a "farce that openly violates fundamental human rights to freedom of expression and association."

The foreign press, rights groups and diplomats were barred from attending the courtroom proceedings.

Cuban state media on Friday detailed some of the evidence laid out in the trials and displayed footage from the proceedings, calling the men's actions "common crimes" and rejecting the view of rights groups.

"In no way are they political prisoners or prisoners of conscience," the ruling Communist Party's newspaper Granma said in a story, citing prosecutors who tried the case. "They are not here because of their way of thinking; nor are they being charged with crimes against state security, but rather for going against social order."

Cuban state media have previously called Castillo and Otero Alcantara's San Isidro Movement part of a U.S.-directed "soft coup" attempt, charges they deny.

The two men have 10 days to appeal their sentences, state media said.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)