Cuba may free more political prisoners into exile

/ Source: The Associated Press

Cuba's government has contacted about a dozen islanders jailed for crimes against the shadowy state-security apparatus and asked if they would be willing to accept freedom in return for leaving their homeland, a leading human rights activist said.

If such a deal became a reality, it would mark the year's second major release of Cuban political prisoners — once unthinkable in a single-party communist state.

Agents from the Ministry of the Interior — charged with running domestic spying and state security activities — have visited about 12 political prisoners in their cells in recent days and offered them the chance to go free as long as they accept exile, said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Sanchez said late Saturday that he received the information from relatives of some of the prisoners who had been offered the deal.

He added that he hoped to release a statement soon with the exact number of prisoners involved, as well as their names and the countries where they might end up, but that those details were not yet available.

Also unclear were what crimes the prisoners committed, though some Cubans have been jailed for years for disobedience, disrespecting authorities or making derogatory statements about former leader Fidel Castro.

In a landmark deal brokered by officials from the Cuban Roman Catholic Church and the Spanish government, Cuban President Raul Castro agreed in July to free 52 opposition activists, community organizers, dissidents and journalists who report on the island in defiance of state controls on all local news media.

Under the deal, 39 prisoners have been released so far and sent with their families into exile in Spain, with one of them settling in Chile. If the remaining 13 are freed, it would empty Cuban prisons of all 75 top activists arrested in a sweeping crackdown on organized dissent in March 2003, an event human rights activists labeled the "Black Spring."

Cuba maintains that it holds no political prisoners. It says the 75 had been convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms on charges including treason and taking money from the U.S. government to destabilize the island's political system.

At least seven political prisoners due to be released under the July agreement do not want to leave Cuba, according to the island's cardinal, Jaime Ortega. That could put future releases in jeopardy: While neither the Church nor the government has said leaving the country is a prerequisite to release, it has clearly smoothed the way.

If all 52 are eventually freed, Cuba will hold just one person considered by Amnesty International to be a prisoner of conscience.

The number of other political prisoners is a matter of dispute. A list maintained by Sanchez includes about 105 additional names, but some of those have been convicted of violent crimes, including murder and hijacking.

Sanchez says about 40 of the people on his list would fit into the classic definition of nonviolent political prisoners, and that number would presumably get smaller if more inmates are freed under a second deal.