Image: Members of the Cuban dissident group Ladies in White demonstrate
Javier Galeano  /  AP
Members of the Cuban dissident group Ladies in White demonstrate during their weekly march in Havana, Cuba on Sunday. The wives and mothers of Cuba's most prominent political prisoners protested to demand the government honor an agreement to release their loved ones by the end of the day.
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updated 11/7/2010 2:13:54 PM ET 2010-11-07T19:13:54

The wives and mothers of Cuba's most prominent political prisoners marched through the leafy streets of the capital Sunday, demanding the government honor an agreement to release their loved ones by the end of the day — or face protests and international condemnation.

With the deadline approaching and no word on the men's fate, a standoff between President Raul Castro and the island's small but vocal opposition community appeared imminent. One dissident vowed to start a hunger strike if the 13 prisoners are not in their homes by Monday, and a human rights leader warned the government was playing with fire.

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"To not release them would be fatal to the promise given to the Church, and a fraud against the international community," said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, the only human rights group tolerated on the island.

Castro agreed following a meeting with Roman Catholic Cardinal Jamie Ortega to release 52 prisoners of conscience held since a 2003 crackdown on peaceful dissent.

The July 7 deal called for all the prisoners to be free in three to four months, a period that ends at midnight Sunday.

"It would be strange" if the men are not released, said Father Jose Felix Perez, who coordinates Cuba's Catholic Bishops Conference and usually celebrates Mass for the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, the dissident group made up of family members of the 2003 prisoners. "It is not what we thought would happen."

Cuban officials have declined to comment on the deadline.

At first, the government moved swiftly to make good on the deal, sending 39 prisoners into exile in Spain, along with their families. Authorities even agreed to release another 14 prisoners who were in jail for violent — but politically motivated — crimes. They too were sent to Spain, though the agreement struck with the Church made no mention of exile being a condition for release.

But progress has ground to a halt recently.

The remaining 13 prisoners of conscience have refused to leave the island, a direct challenge to the government. Some say they will continue their fight for democratic political change the moment they leave jail.

As the hours ticked down Sunday, a confrontation appeared to be looming.

"We won't stop fighting, whether they release them or not," said Laura Pollan, a Damas leader, following a quiet protest by 30 women Sunday on Havana's grand Fifth Avenue thoroughfare. Her husband, Hector Maseda, 67, is serving a 20-year term for treason and other crimes.

Pollan said if the government fails to release the men, "it will show that their word has no value, and that they cannot be believed."

"But we will wait until midnight to see what happens," she added.

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Pollan said the group would step up its protests if the government breaks its word, though she gave no details.

Guillermo Farinas, a dissident who won Europe's Sakharov human rights prize in October after staging a 134-day hunger strike in support of the prisoners, has told The Associated Press he will stop eating Monday if the remaining dissidents are not in their homes.

That would likely spark deep criticism of Cuba in European capitals, and could set back efforts to improve ties with the continent that have been frayed since the 2003 arrests. The United States has been at odds with Cuba for more than half a century, and has demanded the release of all political prisoners — as well as political and social change — before it considers better ties.

A delay could even set back the Obama Administration's long-rumored plans to loosen travel restrictions and make it easier for students, academics and researchers to visit the island. American tourists are effectively barred from traveling to Cuba.

Havana says U.S. criticism of its behavior is hypocritical, since Washington does not have a perfect human rights record either. Cuban officials note that the American government is friendly with many regimes accused of torture and other grave abuses, and counts dictators and strongmen among its friends.

Cuba considers all the dissidents to be common criminals and says they receive money from Washington for the express purpose of bringing down the island's socialist system.

Officials say Farinas' legal problems include violent behavior toward a co-worker and note that he has lived through some two dozen hunger strikes only because of the medical attention given to him by government doctors.

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Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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