By WILL WEISSERT (AP)
The Roman Catholic Church said Wednesday that Cuba has agreed to free 52 political prisoners and let them leave the country in what would be the island's largest mass liberation of dissidents since Pope John Paul II visited in 1998.
Five are to be released into exile in Spain as soon as possible, while the remaining 47 will be let go in "a process that will take three or four months starting now," said Havana's archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
The deal was announced following a meeting between President Raul Castro and Ortega. Also participating was 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."
Moratinos then wrapped up his two-plus days here, but did not take any freed prisoners back to Spain with him. He and Ortega said they weren't sure how long it would take for the first five prisoners to be released.
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 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 20 years in prison for treason — but now could be headed home soon.
But 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 shabby living room in central Havana. "It won't be the first time that they lie."
She later added, however, "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 at least 52 have remained behind bars — most 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, only 52 prisoners were left imprisoned from that group.
Sanchez originally said there were actually 53 of the 75 still behind bars and that one, a former police official named Rolando Jimenez, had been left off Wednesday's list. But he later clarified that his group considers Jimenez a "prisoner of conscience" but not among the 75 arrested in 2003 — meaning all of the group captured seven years ago now stand to be freed in coming weeks.
Sanchez also said the "forced exile in Spain" that awaits the first five to be released is not the same as unconditional freedom.
"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 brooks no organized opposition.
"It's opening the prisons a little, and not to everyone," he said.
Ortega refused to divulge which five prisoners would be released first, or how they were chosen — saying he couldn't yet do so because some of their relatives had yet to be notified.
The cardinal also wouldn't say whether those released after the initial five will be deported to Spain or allowed to stay on the island. Asked if subsequent groups of the prisoners would be forced into exile, he said only that leaving Cuba "is a proposal" they will be offered.
Still, 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 U.S. 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."
Cuba's Catholic Church has recently become a major political voice on the island, though only with the consent of the Castro government.
In May, Ortega negotiated an end to a ban on marches by a small group of wives and mothers of political prisoners known as the Ladies in White.
The cardinal and another church leader subsequently met with Castro for four hours. Church officials then announced the government would transfer political prisoners to jails closer to their families and give better access to medical care for inmates who need it. That led to 12 transfers last month, and freedom for paraplegic Ariel Sigler.
Those discussions apparently laid the groundwork for Wednesday's large-scale agreement.
The church's increasing role helped to defuse a human rights situation that has been tense since the Feb. 23 death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, an activist who died in prison after a lengthy hunger strike. He became the first Cuban opposition figure to die after refusing food in nearly 40 years.
His death sparked international condemnation, and Pollan said Wednesday she thought Cuba had been forced into this latest move because "no country was going to change its position toward Cuba if there weren't improvement in the area of human rights."
The announced agreement also appeared to cast some doubt on the future of Guilermo Farinas, an opposition activist and freelance journalist who has refused food and water since February to protest Zapata Tamayo's death and demand freedom for dozens of political prisoners, all among the 75 jailed in 2003.
He said by phone Wednesday from a hospital in the central city of Santa Clara, where he has received nutrients intravenously, that he would continue his hunger strike and was prepared to go until he dies. Cuba's state-controlled media has reported that Farinas recently suffered a potentially fatal blood clot in his neck.
Fidel Castro said Cuba held 15,000 political prisoners in 1964, but officials in recent years say none of their prisoners are held for political reasons — all for common crimes or for being paid "mercenaries" of U.S.-funded groups trying to overthrow Cuba's government.
According to a report released this week by Sanchez's commission, the number of Cuban political prisoners has fallen to 167, the lowest total since Fidel Castro took power on New Year's Day 1959 — but that tally included those now set to be released as part of the agreement between the church and the government.
"There are more than 100 remaining prisoners and we don't see any in this agreement," Sanchez said. "The government of Cuba should free all political prisoners in Cuba."
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