Church: Cuba offers to free 52 political prisoners

Thursday, July 8, 2010

HAVANA -- The Roman Catholic Church said Wednesday that Cuba's communist government has agreed to free 52 political prisoners and allow them to leave the country in what would be the island's largest mass liberation of dissidents in decades.

Five would be released in a matter of hours and planned to head into exile in Spain, while the remaining 47 would be liberated in "a process that will take three or four months starting now," according to the statement by the office of Havana's Roman Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

The deal was announced following a meeting between President Raul Castro and Ortega. Also participating was visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez.

The scope of the agreement "is a surprise," said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation. "We were hoping for a significant release of prisoners, but not this."

Ortega's office said that those to be released were all members of a group of 75 leading political opposition activists, community organizers and journalists who report on Cuba in defiance of state controls on media. They were rounded up in a crackdown on dissent in March 2003.

"I'm so excited," said Laura Pollan, whose husband, Hector Maceda, was one of the 75, and had been serving 20 years in prison for treason -- but now could be headed home soon.

She later added, however, "I hope to God I'm wrong and can tell you in September that I was wrong and that the government kept its promise."

Some of the 75 original prisoners had previously been freed for health reasons or after completing their terms, or were allowed into exile in Spain. But at least 52 have remained behind bars -- most serving lengthy prison terms on charges of conspiring with Washington to destabilize Cuba's political system.

Sanchez originally said there were actually 53 of the 75 still behind bars and that one, a former police official named Rolando Jimenez, had been left off Wednesday's list. But he later clarified that his group considers Jimenez a "prisoner of conscience" but not among the 75 arrested in 2003 -- meaning all of the group captured seven years ago now stand to be freed in coming weeks.

Sanchez also said it was not clear which five inmates would be released immediately, adding that "the forced exile in Spain" that awaits them is not the same as unconditional freedom.

"These liberations will not mean a significant improvement in the terrible situation of human rights that exists in Cuba," said Sanchez, whose Havana-based commission is not recognized -- but largely tolerated -- by Cuba's government, which officially brooks no organized opposition.

"It's opening the prisons a little, and not to everyone," he said.

Still, others cheered the news, including Sarah Stephens, head of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas, which supports lifting the United States' 48-year-old trade embargo against the island.

"This is joyful news for the prisoners and their families, a credit to the Cuban Catholic Church," Stephens said in a statement, "and a lesson for U.S. policy makers that engagement -- talking to the Cubans with respect -- is accomplishing more, right now, than the embargo has accomplished in 50 years."

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Virginia Staab said U.S. authorities were working to confirm that the first five prisoners had been freed by Wednesday evening.

"We would view prisoner releases as a positive development, but we are seeking further details to confirm the facts," she said.

Cuba's Catholic Church has recently become a major political voice on the island, though only with the consent of the Castro government.

In May, Ortega negotiated an end to a ban on marches by a small group of wives and mothers of political prisoners known as the Ladies in White.

The cardinal and another church leader subsequently met with Castro for four hours. Church officials then announced the government would transfer political prisoners to jails closer to their families and give better access to medical care for inmates who need it. That led to 12 transfers last month, and freedom for paraplegic Ariel Sigler.

Those discussions apparently laid the groundwork for Wednesday's large-scale agreement.

The church's increasing role helped to defuse a human rights situation that has been tense since the Feb. 23 death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, an activist who died in prison after a lengthy hunger strike. He became the first Cuban opposition figure to die after refusing food in nearly 40 years.

His death sparked international condemnation, and Pollan said Wednesday she thought Cuba had been forced into this latest move because "no country was going to change its position toward Cuba if there weren't improvement in the area of human rights."

The announced agreement also appeared to cast some doubt on the future of Guilermo Farinas, an opposition activist and freelance journalist who has refused food and water since February to protest Zapata Tamayo's death and demand freedom for dozens of political prisoners, all among the 75 jailed in 2003.

He said by phone Wednesday from a hospital in the central city of Santa Clara, where he has received nutrients intravenously, that he would continue his hunger strike and was prepared to go until he dies. Cuba's state-controlled media has reported that Farinas recently suffered a potentially fatal blood clot in his neck.

Fidel Castro said Cuba held 15,000 political prisoners in 1964, but officials in recent years say none of their prisoners are held for political reasons -- all for common crimes or for being paid "mercenaries" of U.S.-funded groups trying to overthrow Cuba's government.

According to a report released this week by Sanchez's commission, the number of Cuban political prisoners has fallen to 167, the lowest total since Fidel Castro took power on New Year's Day 1959 -- but that tally included those now set to be released as part of the agreement between the church and the government.

"There are more than 100 remaining prisoners and we don't see any in this agreement," Sanchez said. "The government of Cuba should free all political prisoners in Cuba."

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