Cuba agrees to free 52 political prisoners: Church

Last Updated: Thursday, July 8, 2010 - 23:52

Havana: Cuba has promised the Roman Catholic
Church it will free 52 political prisoners, slashing the
number held by nearly a third in what would be the
communist-led island`s largest release of dissidents since
Pope John Paul II visited in 1998.

Five are to be released initially and sent into exile in
Spain, while the others would be freed over the next three or
four months, said Havana`s archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
The deal was announced yesterday following a meeting
between President Raul Castro and Ortega, with Spanish Foreign
Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos also on hand.

"This opens a new era in Cuba with hope of putting aside
differences once and for all on matters of prisoners," the
Spanish Embassy declared in a statement.

In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham
Clinton also said welcomed the reported agreement.

"We think that`s a positive sign," she said. "It`s
something that is overdue but nevertheless very welcome."

She did not say, however, if it would be enough for a new
beginning to US-Cuban relations. President Barack Obama`s
administration has said it hoped to see an improvement in
Cuba`s human rights record before easing America`s 48-year-old
trade embargo against the island.
Moratinos and Ortega said they weren`t sure how long it
would take for the first five prisoners to be released, but
that the process would likely take days.

Ortega`s office announced today that authorities were
transferring six of the prisoners on the to-be-freed list to
facilities closer to their homes, but had not yet released
any.

Returning to Madrid, Moratinos said his county was
willing to accept all 52 ex-prisoners, but so far has formally
agreed to take the first five. They will not be obligated to
stay in his country.

Asked if subsequent groups of freed political prisoners
also would be forced into exile, Cardinal Ortega said only
that leaving Cuba "is a proposal" they will be offered.

Moratinos told Spanish media the deal could spur the EU
to alter its Common Position on Cuba, which dates from 1996
and calls for advances on human rights and democracy before
relations with the island can be normalized.

"I think there is no reason to maintain the common
position," Moratinos was quoted as saying. The EU is to review
its relations with Cuba in September.

Back in Cuba, meanwhile, human rights and opposition
activists called the scope of the agreement a surprise.

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

PTI



First Published: Thursday, July 8, 2010 - 23:52

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