US officials applaud release of Cuban political prisoner; trial date set for another

By Paul Haven, AP
Monday, June 14, 2010

US applauds release of Cuban political prisoner

HAVANA — Washington applauded the release of an ailing political prisoner in Cuba, saying Monday that it welcomes the role Catholic officials have played in negotiating with Raul Castro’s government and hopes other dissidents will be freed.

Meanwhile, Cuban authorities set a trial date for another prisoner, Darsi Ferrer, a step his wife viewed as a potential breakthrough that could see him freed soon.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States views the Saturday release of Ariel Sigler as “a positive development.”

“We hope that this will lead to the release of additional prisoners of conscience,” Crowley told reporters in Washington.

Sigler, 44, who is paralyzed from the waist down, was freed on medical grounds. One of 75 activists arrested in 2003 during a crackdown by Cuban authorities, he had been serving a 25-year sentence for treason.

Crowley’s comment was the most positive yet by a U.S. official since Cuba began making a series of concessions following landmark talks between the communist government and the Roman Catholic church.

Under an agreement ironed out with church leaders, 12 prisoners of conscience have been transferred to jails closer to their homes in recent weeks. The concessions came ahead of a visit to Cuba by the Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, who arrives Tuesday.

“We certainly respect the positive role played by … those working for the improved treatment of released political prisoners, including the Catholic Church,” Crowley said.

The church has suddenly burst on the scene as a powerful political voice in Cuba.

In May, Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega negotiated an end to a ban on marches by a group known as the Ladies in White, which is made up of the wives and mothers of some of the dissidents jailed in 2003.

The cardinal and another church leader later met with Raul Castro, leading to the agreement on prisoners.

Human rights officials say Cuba holds 180 political prisoners in all. Havana says the dissidents are a mix of common criminals and agitators paid and manipulated by Washington to bring down the government.

Emblematic of the difference between the two sides is the case of Ferrer, a longtime opposition figure who has been jailed without trial since July 2009, when he was arrested on charges of illegally purchasing cement.

All construction projects in Cuba are tightly regulated and materials are controlled by the state; thus, Havana considers him a criminal.

However the purchase of supplies on the island’s black market is extremely commonplace and usually goes unpunished, leading diplomats and international observers to call his arrest a clear retaliation for political activity.

Ferrer’s wife, Yusnaimi Jorge, told The Associated Press on Monday that his trial will take place June 22 and prosecutors have recommended a 3-year sentence. Under Cuban law, those convicted of short jail terms are often allowed to remain free.

“We hope they will free him,” she said.

Elizardo Sanchez, who heads the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation and monitors dissident activity, reacted cautiously to the news.

“If they free him, it would be a positive step,” he said. “But if he is condemned (to jail time) it is a step backward.”

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

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