Spain says 7 political dissidents and their families set to leave Cuba for new life in Madrid

By Will Weissert, AP
Monday, July 12, 2010

7 Cuban prisoners will go to Spain with families

HAVANA — Cuban officials told relatives of soon-to-be-released political prisoners to be ready to leave the country at any moment Monday, and Spain’s foreign minister said seven of the dissidents and their families would be boarding a flight to Madrid soon.

The government of Raul Castro has pledged to free 52 political prisoners over the next three or four months in a mass liberation that once seemed unthinkable — part of a deal between Cuban authorities and the island’s Roman Catholic Church that was brokered by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.

While no prisoners had yet been released, the Church announced Monday that three more inmates would go free soon, bringing to 20 the number set to be released and sent to Spain.

The Spanish Foreign Ministry told The Associated Press that seven of them should arrive aboard a flight Tuesday. The immediate future of the other 13 prisoners was unclear.

Spanish authorities have said that once the Cubans arrive, they will not be required to stay in Spain and will be free to head elsewhere.

It was not known if subsequently released prisoners will be allowed to stay in Cuba or will be forced to go to another country. Both the U.S. and Chile also have offered to grant them asylum.

Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said at least three prisoners asked Cardinal Jaime Ortega to leave them off the list of those headed soon to Spain because they want to remain in Cuba.

Meanwhile, family members of the initial wave of inmates expected to be freed said Cuban authorities told them to be ready to leave the island for good.

“Sunday they performed medical checkups, did paperwork for the passports and told us to be ready starting today,” said Irene Viera, wife of community organizer Julio Cesar Galvez, who had been serving a 15-year prison sentence for treason.

“I’m very nervous about all of this,” she said, but added, “I can finally see him without it being in prison for the first time in years.”

At least one relative, the sister of another political prisoner, began preparing for life outside Cuba by heading to the beauty parlor.

All of those Cuba has promised to free were among 75 opposition activists arrested in a sweeping state crackdown on dissent in March 2003, when the world’s attention was focused on the start of the war in Iraq.

Cuba had accused them of taking money from Washington to destabilize the island’s communist government — charges both those imprisoned and U.S. officials have denied. Of those, 23 had been previously freed, meaning that if Cuba’s deal with the church holds, their numbers behind bars will fall to zero.

For now, Sanchez’s commission says Cuba now holds 167 political prisoners — the lowest total since Fidel Castro took power on New Year’s Day 1959. If the government keeps its promise, that total would drop by nearly a third to 115 and all but one of the inmates considered “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International and other human rights groups will have been released.

The single exception would be Rolando Jimenez, who Sanchez identified as a police official but Amnesty International says is a lawyer. He was arrested in April 2003 and is serving a 12-year sentence for disrespecting authority and “revealing secrets about state security police” after he publicly pledged support for the political prisoners arrested the previous month.

Some of the other prisoners still considered held for political reasons by Sanchez’s commission were convicted of violent acts — including planting bombs in hotels in Havana that killed an Italian tourist in the 1990s.

The island’s government says it holds no political prisoners and that all countries have the right to jail traitors. Authorities refuse to recognize Sanchez’s independent, Havana-based commission but largely allow it to operate.

Associated Press Writer Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report.

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