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By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Cuba's Raul Castro has kept the system his brother Fidel used to repress critics, refusing to free scores of people imprisoned years ago and jailing others for "dangerousness," Human Rights Watch said in a report issued on Wednesday.
The assessment came at a critical moment, as President Barack Obama says he wants to "recast" ties with Cuba and Congress is considering lifting a ban on U.S. travel to the Communist-run island 90 miles from Florida.
Fidel Castro temporarily ceded power to his younger brother Raul in July, 2006 and formally stepped aside as president last year because of illness.
Raul Castro has relied in particular on a Cuban law that lets the state imprison people even before they commit a crime, Human Rights Watch said.
The group documented more than 40 cases under Raul Castro in which Cuba has imprisoned individuals for "dangerousness" because they sought to do things such as stage peaceful marches or organise independent labour unions.
In addition, 53 prisoners who were sentenced in a 2003 crackdown on dissidents under Fidel Castro are still in jail, the report by the global human rights monitor said.
Systematic repression has created a climate of fear among Cuban dissidents, and prison conditions are inhumane, said Human Rights Watch, whose researchers travelled to the island for two weeks during the summer for their report.
Jail is only one of the tactics used, it said. "Dissidents who try to express their views are often beaten, arbitrarily arrested, and subjected to public acts of repudiation."
In one recent well-publicized example, Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez said she was beaten this month by men she thinks were state security agents.
The independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights estimated this year that Cuba has 200 political prisoners. It says the government now favours brief detentions over long sentences because they intimidate without hurting Cuba's image abroad.
U.S. TRAVEL BAN QUESTIONED
In Congress, a key Democrat said the report showed the need to lift the U.S. travel ban on Cuba. That would be "the best anti-Castro-policy," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman told Reuters.
Americans visiting Cuba would be ambassadors of democratic values, thus undermining the Castro government, he said.
"I think the Castro regime likes our current policy. They are very nervous about us opening up travel to Cuba," Berman said. He is holding a hearing on Thursday to consider legislation by Democrat Bill Delahunt to lift the travel ban.
Human Rights Watch urged a multilateral approach to press the Cuban government to improve its rights record, focussing on the release of political prisoners, instead of seeking to change Cuba's one-party system through a unilateral embargo.
The United States has restricted trade and travel with Cuba since the 1960s in what started as a Cold War policy to isolate Fidel Castro after his 1959 revolution. But the U.S. embargo has lost international support, with only Israel and Palau backing the U.S. policy at the United Nations this year.
Since taking office in January, Obama has taken steps to ease the embargo as well as reopen dialogue with Havana.
But he also has called on its government to reciprocate by freeing detained dissidents and improving human rights.
Human Rights Watch favours an end to the U.S. travel ban. It says Washington should also end its "failed embargo policy" that has won sympathy for the Castro government abroad.
But before lifting the embargo the United States should agree with allies in Europe and Latin America to jointly demand the immediate release of Cuban political prisoners, it said.
If Havana does not respond in six months, countries should impose joint punitive measures on Cuba, the report said.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle, editing by David Storey)

Reuters