Cuba moves 7 political prisoners nearer homes, part of deal to better conditions behind bars

By Paul Haven, AP
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cuba moving 7 political prisoners nearer homes

HAVANA — Cuba has begun transferring some of the country’s 200 political prisoners to jails closer to home, the first sign the government is making good on a deal with the Roman Catholic Church to improve conditions behind bars.

At least seven prisoners were on the move, according to reports Tuesday from Roman Catholic Church officials, human rights leaders and relatives who said they had spoken with jail authorities.

“There is great hope and euphoria among us,” Julia Nunez, whose husband Adolfo Fernandez was among those being transferred, told The Associated Press. She said that visiting him had meant a 7-hour bus ride to a prison 310 miles (500 kilometers) away. “No matter how you look at it, this is a little light at the end of the tunnel.”

The Havana archbishop’s office released a list of six other names, along with details on where the men would end up.

The news — once hard to imagine from a government that rarely backs down on anything — came 10 days after church officials announced an agreement that would see authorities move some “prisoners of conscience” and allow long-demanded medical treatment for those who are ailing.

“This could be the starting gun,” said Elizardo Sanchez, who heads the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation and monitors dissident activity.

The church list included Felix Navarro, Jose Luis Garcia, Ivan Adolfo Hernandez, Diosdado Gonzalez, Arnaldo Ramos and Antonio Ramon Diaz — all jailed in a sweeping 2003 crackdown. They were sentenced to terms ranging from 20 to 25 years, while Fernandez is serving a 15-year term. All were charged with treason and other crimes against the communist state.

Sanchez said he was heartened by news of the moves, but added he was waiting to hear about help for the sick prisoners.

“It would be much more important if they free those who are not well,” he said.

The deal between the government and the church followed a meeting between Cuban President Raul Castro and Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who has become a key player in efforts to improve relations between dissidents and Cuba’s communist leaders.

Last month, Ortega negotiated an end to a three-week ban on marches by a small group of wives and mothers of some of the 75 activists, community organizers and government critics jailed in 2003. More than 50 remain behind bars.

Before his mediation, pro-government supporters had surrounded the women — called the Ladies in White — preventing them from demonstrating and showering them with hours of verbal abuse.

The Cuban government had no immediate comment on the reported transfers. It has never publicly acknowledged any deal with the church, leaving it to Roman Catholic officials to release details of the talks.

The prisoner transfers mean that “the agreement between the cardinal and Raul is coming to pass, and that is very good,” said Alejandrina Garcia, wife of Gonzalez. “But I am not going to stop demanding his freedom.”

Before his transfer, Gonzalez was being held at a jail in Pinar del Rio, 250 miles (400 kilometers) from home.

News of the transfers came just a day after six dissidents and human rights officials bemoaned the lack of progress on the promised prison transfers in interviews with the AP, saying they were growing desperate for a sign the government was serious about the concessions.

Cuban officials describe the dissidents as traitors paid by Washington to undermine the island’s communist system. They object to descriptions of the opposition as prisoners of conscience, saying every government should have the right to imprison those seeking its overthrow.

The dissidents counter that they are in jail for expressing their views, and say there is no evidence any of them had the plans — or the means — to seriously threaten the government’s control.

Laura Pollan, head of the Ladies in White, told the AP that at least 17 of those rounded up in 2003 are being held at jails outside their home province, 11 are older than 60, and 26 suffer from serious health problems. She said four of the prisoners meet all three of those criteria: Ramos, Fernandez, Jesus Mustafa and Omar Ruiz.

During an interview in her living room Tuesday, she said she did not expect her own husband, Hector Maseda, to be released — despite the fact he is 65.

“This government likes it that I am traveling and outside Havana for two days when I go visit him,” she said.

Cuba’s human rights record has come into sharp focus since the Feb. 23 death of jailed dissident hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

Another dissident, Guillermo Farinas, has refused to eat or drink since Tamayo’s death, though he has been receiving nutrients intravenously.

The breakthrough on political prisoners comes less than two weeks ahead of a planned visit to Cuba by the Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti.

Once tense relations between the church and Cuba’s leaders eased in the early 1990s when the government removed references to atheism in the constitution and allowed believers of all faiths to join the Communist Party. They warmed more when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998.

Associated Press writers Andrea Rodriguez and Will Weissert contributed to this report.

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