By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba on Friday pardoned 3,522 common prisoners in what it called a humanitarian gesture ahead of next week's visit by Pope Francis, repeating similar actions it took ahead of two previous papal visits.
Cuba said they would be released within three days in what would be among the largest mass releases of prisoners since the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Cuba freed 3,600 political prisoners at once in 1978.
This time, however, there appeared to be no political prisoners among those pardoned.
The Communist-led country, which officially denies it has political prisoners, said those convicted of crimes against state security would not be pardoned. Also not included, according to state-run media accounts of the Council of State decision, were people convicted of murder, rape, child abuse, the illegal rustling or slaughter of cattle, or drug trafficking.
Those freed would include men over 60 and under 20, women, the chronically ill, prisoners due for conditional release in 2016, and foreigners whose repatriation could be assured, Cuba said.
The Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is preparing for the pope's Sept. 19-22 visit, welcomed the release, saying in a statement it was "cause for happiness and spiritual relief for the prisoners and their family."
Church officials were still trying to determine if any of those pardoned were among the prisoners they have asked the government to release.
None of the 3,522 names published in the Official Gazette appeared to match a list of 60 political prisoners published in June by the dissident Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, according to a Reuters review.
Commission members said they were still reviewing the government's 129-page document.
The Reuters review showed one name on both lists matched, but the commission said it appeared to be a coincidence involving a common name as the circumstances of their cases differed.
None of those pardoned belonged to the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), the country's largest dissident group, leader Jose Daniel Ferrer said. Some 21 UNPACU activists are in prison, Ferrer said.
However, Ferrer said he considered one of those pardoned to be a political prisoner because he took up political activism in prison.
Andres Frometa, one of those pardoned on Friday, was convicted in the early 1990s for attempting cross into the U.S. military base at Cuba'a Guantanamo Bay, setting off a landmine in the buffer zone, Ferrer said.
The human rights commission said it had excluded Frometa from its list of political detainees because of a history of violent crime, but welcomed his release and that of the others.
Commission president Elizardo Sanchez said Cuba's prison population was still excessive at an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 out of a total population of 11 million.
PAPAL VISITS SPUR PARDONS
Francis' visit this month is part of steadily improving relations between Cuba and the Catholic Church after decades of strained ties.
Cuba released about 300 prisoners including 101 political prisoners ahead of Pope John Paul's landmark visit in 1998, Sanchez said. It freed 2,900 common prisoners ahead of the 2012 visit by Pope Benedict.
More recently, Cuba released 53 political prisoners in conjunction with last December's announcement of detente with United States. Cuba at that time also freed American aid contractor Alan Gross, who had been held for five years, and a Cuban man who had been caught spying for the Americans, the latter in exchange for three Cuban spies held in the United States.
The human rights commission's list of 60 political prisoners includes seven armed anti-government infiltrators, about a dozen who hijacked or attempted to hijack a plane or boats to leave the country, four armed soldiers and a civilian collaborator who helped them try to desert, and others accused of violence or spying.
However, the commission also says about two dozen peaceful political activists are held as political prisoners on the Caribbean island.
Among the most celebrated is artist Danilo Maldonado, alias "El Sexto," who is awaiting trial on a charge of "disrespect" for painting "Fidel" and "Raul" on a pair of pigs in a satire of former President Fidel Castro and his brother, current President Raul Castro, the commission said.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Additional reporting by Jaime Hamre; Editing by Frances Kerry)