Cuba has freed all 53 political prisoners as agreed in deal: US

Cuba has freed all 53 political prisoners agreed to in last month`s normalization deal with the United States, the US State Department said Monday.

AFP| Updated: Jan 13, 2015, 06:02 AM IST

Washington: Cuba has freed all 53 political prisoners agreed to in last month`s normalization deal with the United States, the US State Department said Monday.

News of the release comes as US officials prepare to travel to Havana next week for talks to lay the foundation for a historic rapprochement after a half-century of Cold War enmity.

"We welcome this very positive development and are pleased that the Cuban government followed through on this commitment," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

"These political prisoners were individuals who had been cited by various human rights organizations as being imprisoned by the Cuban government for exercising internationally protected freedoms or for their promotion of political and social reforms in Cuba," Harf said.

A senior administration official said earlier that the US Interests Section in Havana had verified the releases.

Neither the United States nor Cuba has disclosed who was released, but Harf said the list has been given to US lawmakers.

"We fully expect it will be in the public domain," she said.

In Havana, dissident groups and the Catholic Church welcomed the news as a positive step forward, but neither could independently confirm the releases, and state-run media was silent on the matter.

Orlando Marquez, the spokesman for the Archbishop of Havana, said that if confirmed, the releases indicated the process toward normalization was underway.

"It reflects a willingness ... to have a direct dialogue without intermediaries, and make progress in the normalization of relations to everyone`s benefit," he said.Dissident leaders said late last week that Cuba had released more than 40 dissidents by late Friday, as part of last month`s historic bilateral rapprochement in which Cuba agreed to free dozens of political prisoners as part of the deal to end a five-decade standoff with the United States.

The head of the Ladies in White dissident group -- which stages recurring protests in the Cuba capital -- however took issue with the assertion that 53 political detainees were freed by the government, saying she believes the number is smaller.

"We really don`t know who these 53 freed people are," the group`s leader Berta Soler told AFP, adding that by her count, only 41 dissidents have been released.

"Where are the other 12?" she said, calling on both the Havana and US governments to publish lists with the names of those who are supposed to have been freed.

Soler added that the freed prisoners were only "conditionally released," implying they could be re-arrested in the future.

"By contrast the three spies freed by the United States are able to walk the street without conditions, even though they have blood on their hands," said Soler, referring to members of the Cuban Five group sent back to Havana after years of imprisonment in America, as part of the normalization deal reached with Washington.

Nevertheless, dissidents said the speedy release of the political prisoners was a sign of how much and how quickly relations have changed between Washington and Havana.

"The fact that the prisoners were released in almost record time seems to me a positive event," said opposition figure Manuel Cuesta Morua.

"I think it`s a sign that the Cuban government is serious about normalizing its relationship with the United States," he said.

"It also seem to be an important indicator of the fact that the Cuban government seems to understand that the path of normalization travels through human rights."

Washington is seen as likely to ramp up pressure on Cuba on the issue of human rights, as the two nations prepare to hold talks in Havana on January 21-22.

Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Roberta Jacobson will lead the US delegation.

Jacobsen is set to be the highest-ranking US official to visit the Caribbean island in several decades. She last set foot in Cuba in 2011 when she held a lower office at the State Department.

A Cuban round-up of about 50 dissidents late last month briefly caused a new diplomatic scuffle with Washington, just days after the announcement of their historic renewal of bilateral ties.

The detentions revived criticism from those who disapprove of the rapprochement arrangement -- including many members of the US Congress who have said the United States should first have secured concessions from Cuba on democratic reforms and human rights.

Cuba`s President Raul Castro has said he is willing to discuss any topic with Washington as part of their historic diplomatic breakthrough, but that he will not carry out political change.