Cuba to release 52 political prisoners, Catholic Church says

Fidel Castro, Cuba's revolutionary leader who ousted a military dictatorship to install the first communist regime in the Western Hemisphere, announced that he is stepping down as president, ending his half-century rule.
By William Booth and Karen DeYoung
Thursday, July 8, 2010

MEXICO CITY -- The Cuban government will free 52 political prisoners, Catholic officials in Havana said Wednesday, the largest release of captive dissidents in decades and a surprise gesture that could help thaw relations with the United States.

The scheduled release of those arrested in a March 2003 crackdown against pro-democracy activists on the island was brokered by the country's archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, with help from visiting Spanish diplomats.

Ortega met this week with Cuban President Raúl Castro, brother of the country's ailing dictator. Fidel Castro, 83, has not been seen in public for four years but remains the country's supreme leader and probably approved the move.

(Photos of Fidel Castro's five decades in power)

The Cuban government had nothing to say about the release, and human rights activists were cautious in their response to the church's announcement.

"This is significant, and good news, from the point of view of the prisoners and their families," Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights, said by telephone from Havana. "But it is a political decision of the Cuban government, taken for short-term political motives, to have an immediate effect overseas, not in Cuba itself."

If the government does release the prisoners, said José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch in Washington, "it's a significant number." But he added: "That doesn't mean we are going to congratulate a government that has decided to put people in prison who shouldn't have been in prison in the first place. These are people whose crime is that they disagreed with the government."

U.S. officials have said that the release of political prisoners is a necessary step before the two governments can improve their often stormy relations. The United States has maintained a 50-year trade embargo against Cuba, and Americans who do not have relatives on the island need special permission from the U.S. government to travel there.

The State Department said Wednesday night that it had no confirmation that any prisoners had been released. A spokeswoman said, "We would view prisoner releases as a positive development, but we are seeking further details to confirm the facts."

The Roman Catholic Church said in a statement that five of the 52 political prisoners would be freed within hours and would travel to Spain, accompanied by their relatives. Whether they were forced into exile or chose to leave is not known.

The remaining 47 will be released in "a process that will take three or four months starting now" and "may leave the country," according to the church. The prisoners, who include journalists, community organizers and opposition figures, were sentenced to prison terms of 20 years and more. Sanchez noted that no names had been released and that no relatives or lawyers had been notified, even the five families who were said to be leaving immediately.

Laura Pollan, the wife of prisoner Hector Maceda, said she was overjoyed that her husband might be released, but she told the Associated Press in Havana: "I don't think they will let everyone go. . . . It's not the first time they lie."

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