Cuba agrees to free 52 political prisoners: Church
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Last Updated: Thursday, July 08, 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.


First Published: Thursday, July 08, 2010, 23:52

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