Jose Goitia  /  AP
Cuban opposition leader Marta Beatriz Roque is seen after being released from prison Thursday in Havana.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 7/23/2004 1:06:02 PM ET 2004-07-23T17:06:02

Cuban prison authorities have unexpectedly released leading dissident Marta Beatriz Roque because of concerns about her deteriorating health.

Roque, an economist serving a 20-year sentence for conspiracy against the Castro government, was the only woman jailed in the March 2003 arrest of 75 dissidents. That Communist government crackdown, condemned around the world, devastated the island’s opposition movement.

“I was completely surprised and never thought they would grant me an early release,” she told a group of international reporters at her sister’s home late Thursday. “I was told to gather my belongings and that I could go home.”

At first, she thought it was a trick — fearing that release came with strings attached. “I would never accept any type of conditional freedom… never agree to go into exile,” she insisted. “This is my country. If someone has to leave, it’s not me.”

Authorities did warn her that she risked returning to prison to serve the remainder of her sentence if a court were to find her guilty of again breaking Cuban law.

Her alleged infractions included violations of the island’s strict national security provisions, which prohibit engagement with a foreign power to subvert the island's socialist regime. During her trial Roque was accused of being a “mercenary” who conspired with the U.S. government, a charge she denies to this day.

Roque is the first to admit it will be hard staying out of trouble.

“I don’t know if this freedom will last… We’ll just have to see,” she stated. “I am a dissident. I’m not the one who has a problem with the law. It’s the law that has a problem with me."

2nd jail term
This marked the second time Roque served time in jail. Her first sentence lasted from 1997 to 2000 after she called on foreigners to disinvest and Cubans to boycott a national election.

Roque, 58, spent the past year in the prison ward of Havana’s Military Hospital, being treated for chest pains, hypertension and diabetes. She blames her failing health on her six-month incarceration in Havana’s Manto Negro Women’s Penitentiary.

Cuba after the revolutionShe said she was kept in complete isolation and rarely saw sunlight. “I had no bathroom, just a hole in the floor. There were large rats and every type of insect imaginable. The first few months I lived with a light on all the time.”

In her first public declaration since prison, Roque urged the government to release all political prisoners.

“We are pacifists, fighting for democracy, " she said. "Our imprisonment has been totally unjust.”

Since April, the Ministry of the Interior released six other jailed dissidents for reasons of failing health. “This is the government’s way of saying that it is becoming flexible,” Roque said. “But this doesn’t count until all 75 are free.”

NBC's Mary Murray is based in Havana


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