US, human rights leader call for freedom for Cuban political prisoners

By Paul Haven, AP
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

US calls for freeing of Cuba prisoners

HAVANA — The U.S. government and a top Cuban human rights activist on Wednesday urged the island’s leaders to release jailed political prisoners, not just transfer them to facilities nearer to their homes.

On Tuesday, at least six political prisoners were moved to jails closer to their homes under a deal with the Roman Catholic Church to improve prison conditions.

Dissident leaders have said the agreement worked out between the government and the church includes an understanding that some of the 26 ailing political prisoners would be freed, but church officials have said only that the government would provide better access to medical care.

“We continue to hope that prisoners of conscience will be released, rather than just relocated, as soon as possible,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters at a briefing in Washington.

In Cuba, human rights leader Elizardo Sanchez told The Associated Press the transfers “don’t satisfy our hopes, nor do they satisfy the hopes of the international community, which is seeking the prisoners’ unconditional release.”

Sanchez, who heads the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said he hopes to hear word on more transfers soon.

Bertha Soler, the wife of prisoner Angel Moya and one of the leaders of the Ladies in White, a group of wives and mothers of 75 people arrested in a sweeping 2003 crackdown, hopes the prison transfers are a signal that ailing prisoners will be released.

“They started with these six men, but we hope soon to get word of the release of those who are most sick,” she said.

Human rights groups say Cuba is holding some 200 prisoners of conscience, including 53 still in jail from the 2003 arrests. The six prisoners moved Tuesday were all sent to jail in 2003 on charges of treason and sentenced to terms between 20 and 25 years.

The wife of a seventh prisoner said Tuesday that her husband was part of the prison transfer, but as of Wednesday there was no confirmation he was being moved.

The agreement also calls for Cuba to provide medical treatment for ailing prisoners, though there has been no word on that starting.

Cuban President Raul Castro met on May 19 with Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who has become a leading figure in efforts to improve relations between dissidents and Cuba’s communist leaders.

Concessions of any kind would have been unthinkable just a few months ago, when the government was in the midst of a vocal defense of its human rights record after the death of a hunger striking dissident. At the time, Cuban officials warned that if another dissident hunger striker died, his blood would be on the hands of the international community.

Cuban officials describe the dissidents as traitors who are on Washington’s payroll, and say any 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 plans or the means to seriously threaten the government’s control.

Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed to this report.

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