Cuba moves some political prisoners nearer home, part of deal to better conditions behind bars

By Paul Haven, AP
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cuba moving some 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.

Jail authorities contacted the family of dissident Felix Navarro to tell them he would be moved from the maximum-security Canaleta prison in Ciego de Avila to a facility closer to his home in Matanzas, 235 miles (375 kilometers) to the northwest, human rights leader Elizardo Sanchez told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Three other prisoners were also in the process of being moved closer to their homes, according to dissidents and family members.

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

The transfers came 10 days after church officials announced an agreement that would see the government move some “prisoners of conscience” to jails closer to their homes and allow long-demanded medical treatment for those who are ailing.

Another prisoner, Diosdado Gonzalez, was also being moved closer to his home in Matanzas, his wife, Alejandrina Garcia, told the AP. The families of two other prisoners, Antonio Diaz and Adolfo Fernandez, have been told their transfers have been approved, said Berta Soler, who is an activist and the wife of another inmate. Diaz is serving a 20- year sentence; Fernandez 15.

Sanchez said he was heartened by news of the moves, but added that 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 75 activists, community organizers and government critics jailed in a 2003 crackdown on dissent. 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 Garcia, wife of prisoner Diosdado Gonzalez. “But I am not going to stop demanding for his freedom.”

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

“I spoke to (my husband) on Wednesday,” said Lidia Lima, wife of one of Cuba’s oldest political prisoners, 68-year-old Arnaldo Ramos. “He was so hopeful, but now we’re not so sure.”

There was no immediate word on whether Ramos, a Havana native serving an 18-year prison term at the high-security Sancti Spiritus jail in eastern Cuba, would be among those transferred.

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.

All four of the prisoners moved were among the 75 arrested in 2003. Navarro, 56, was sentenced to 25 years in jail for treason and other crimes against the state, one of the stiffest punishments meted out.

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 Writer Andrea Rodriguez contributed to this report.

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