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Catholic Church says Cuba to free 52 dissidents

Though report raises hope, doubt remains

By Will Weissert
Associated Press / July 8, 2010

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HAVANA — The Roman Catholic Church said yesterday that Cuba 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 since Pope John Paul II visited in 1998.

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,’’ 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 the visiting Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, and his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez.

“We feel enormous satisfaction,’’ Moratinos said in a statement released by the Spanish Embassy. “This opens a new era in Cuba with hope of putting aside differences once and for all on matters of prisoners.’’

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 a 20-year prison term for treason — but now could be headed home soon.

Pollan was also hesitant, saying Cuba may not free as many political prisoners as it says it will. “I don’t think they will let everyone go; I think only some will be,’’ she said in her threadbare living room in central Havana. “It won’t be the first time that they lie.’’ She added, “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 most have remained behind bars — with many serving lengthy prison terms on charges of conspiring with Washington to destabilize Cuba’s political system.

Church official Orlando Marquez said that by the cardinal’s count, 52 prisoners were left imprisoned from that group.

Sanchez said it was not clear which five inmates would be released immediately, adding “the forced exile in Spain’’ that awaits them is not the same as unconditional freedom. Another unanswered question is whether those freed after the initial batch of five will be deported to Spain or allowed to stay on the island.

“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 allows no organized opposition.

If the agreement holds, it would be the largest group of political prisoners freed since the government released 299 inmates in a general amnesty following the pope’s visit 12 years ago. Of those, about 100 were considered held for political reasons. 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 US policymakers 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 “we would view prisoner releases as a positive development, but we are seeking further details to confirm the facts.’’

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