Church announces release of 5 more Cuba prisoners

AP News
|
Posted: Oct 21, 2010 6:24 PM
Church announces release of 5 more Cuba prisoners

The Roman Catholic Church on Thursday announced the names of five more Cuban inmates who have accepted exile in Spain in return for freedom, though none are among a group of 52 political prisoners jailed in a 2003 roundup of dissidents.

The prisoners _ four men and a woman _ were convicted of such crimes as hijacking and terrorism, and sentenced to jail terms ranging from 10 to 17 years.

Four of the five are on a Cuban human rights group's list of inmates whose arrests or sentences are considered to have been politically motivated, despite the fact they were found guilty of violent crimes. The fifth is not on any list of known Cuban political prisoners.

Amnesty International and other international human rights organizations generally do not consider people found guilty of violent acts to be "prisoners of conscience," though the groups say such cases may still constitute miscarriages of justice.

Cuba's government pledged in July to free the 52 political prisoners still locked up after the 2003 crackdown on opposition activists, government critics and social commentators. So far, 39 have left on flights to Madrid, along with family members.

Those freed Thursday raised to eight the number of other prisoners whose exile has been announced by the church.

Of the 13 dissidents remaining from the 2003 group, at least seven have rejected the church deal because they don't want to leave Cuba. When the breakthrough was announced by the office of Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega, there was no mention of exile being a prerequisite for freedom, but all those who have been released so far have accepted it.

The government has until Nov. 8 to make good on its promise to free all 52 of the prisoners of conscience within four months.

The new releases were announced on the same day that Guillermo Farinas, a Cuban dissident who staged a 134-day hunger strike earlier this year, was awarded the European Parliament's annual human rights prize for drawing attention to the plight of the island's political prisoners.

Farinas told The Associated Press by telephone from his home in the central city of Santa Clara that the award sent a strong signal to the government in Havana.

"The award is a very direct message to Cuba's leaders, who have done so little" to respect human rights, he said.

Farinas warned he will begin another hunger strike if the government does not fulfill its July 8 pledge to free all 52 political prisoners.

Despite the releases, the government routinely denounces all of the dissidents as common criminals paid by Washington to destabilize the island.

Why Cuban authorities are pushing to reduce the number of political prisoners is not known, though experts have speculated it may be part of an effort to promote reconciliation with the United States.

The administration of President Barack Obama has suggested it may be time for a new beginning with Cuba, but it also says Cuba's government needs to embrace small economic and social reforms before a true thaw can take place.

Even before news of Thursday's releases came out, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. welcomed the prisoner releases and hoped Havana would free all prisoners of conscience.

"We certainly believe that Cuba should follow through on recent public statements and release all political prisoners within Cuba," Crowley said in Washington. "As Cuba takes steps to improve its human rights record, obviously we will take note of that and we will respond appropriately."