Cuban Church leaders help free political prisoners

By  Catholic News Service
  • July 8, 2010
Cuba Lady in WhiteHAVANA  - Following a July 7 meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro, Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana said the release of 52 political prisoners is under way and will continue over the next four months.

An announcement on the cardinal's web site said the process leading to the release began with a May 19 meeting with Castro by Ortega and Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez, president of the Cuban bishops' conference.

Spanish diplomatic sources July 8 said Spain's foreign minister has agreed to take in the 52 prisoners set for release.

Although none of the prisoners to be released was named in the cardinal's announcement, it said one had already been released and another 12 had been transferred to prisons closer to their homes. The statement noted that within hours another six prisoners were to be transferred to prisons near their homes and "five more will be freed and permitted to leave shortly for Spain in the company of their family members."

"The Cuban authorities also said that the 47 prisoners remaining from those detained in 2003 will be released and permitted to leave the country," it said. "This arrangement will be concluded in a period of three or four months, beginning now."

The prisoner release is reported to be the largest since 1998, when 101 political prisoners were among about 300 inmates released after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba. The prisoners awaiting release had been detained in 2003 during a government crackdown. Cuban officials rounded up 75 activists and journalists accused of acting as mercenaries for the United States and said they planned to overthrow the Cuban government. Of this initial group, some have completed their sentences and others have been released for health reasons.

In June, Cuba released dissident Darsi Ferrer and an ill prisoner, Ariel Sigler, who has been awaiting approval from the U.S. government to join family members in Florida.

In late February, one of the prisoners, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died after he had been on a hunger strike protesting prison conditions. The day after his death, on Feb. 24, prisoner Guillermo Farinas began a hunger strike protesting Zapata's death and calling attention to ill prisoners.

In May, Catholic Church officials successfully negotiated with Cuban authorities to lift a ban on marches staged by the Ladies in White, a group of wives and mothers of political prisoners.

Castro met June 20 with Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican's foreign minister, and the state-run news media said the meeting "showed the favourable development of relations between the state and the Catholic Church in Cuba."

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