Cuban human rights leader details govt offer of freedom for more prisoners

By Paul Haven, AP
Monday, October 4, 2010

Rights leader: More Cuban prisoners to go free

HAVANA — A Cuban human rights leader on Monday revealed the names of nine inmates apparently offered early release by the government in exchange for accepting exile, including some convicted of violent crimes such as hijacking, assault and piracy.

During formal jailhouse interviews in recent days, the nine men were told to compile a list of no more than eight family members who could go with them into exile, said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

“This massive release is good news,” Sanchez said in a written statement.

The communist government has not commented.

Word of the expected releases — which first came out over the weekend — is the latest sign that Cuba’s surprise decision to empty its jail of many political prisoners will not be limited to the 52 “prisoners of conscience” whose release had already been promised.

Those prisoners — jailed in a 2003 sweep — were all locked up for nonviolent activism and other opposition activities and are considered political prisoners by London-based Amnesty International.

But the government is holding about 100 other people who are not on Amnesty’s list, many because they have been convicted of murder, hijacking and other violent crimes. Some human rights organizations believe the convictions and lengthy sentences were politically motivated.

The list released by Sanchez on Monday includes three men — Leudis Arce Romero, Lazaro Avila Sierra and Francisco Reyes Rodriguez — serving life sentences for hijacking a plane from Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud in 2003 and demanding it be taken to the United States.

Others on the list were convicted of violent crimes including piracy, assault and “terrorism,” and were serving sentences ranging from six to 15 years.

The only prisoner on the list not convicted of a violent crime was Pavel Hernandez, who was sentenced to six years in jail for trying to leave Cuba illegally.

The release of the first wave of 52 prisoners came as part of a landmark July deal between Cuba and the island’s Roman Catholic Church that was brokered by Spain’s government. So far, 39 former inmates from those jailed in the 2003 crackdown have been sent with their families into exile in Spain, with one of them then settling in Chile.

Sanchez did not say where any prisoner freed as part of a second group of releases could end up.

In Madrid on Monday, the Spanish Foreign Ministry said it has no immediate plans to take in any freed Cuban prisoners outside of the 52 whose release was negotiated by the Catholic Church. The ministry said it was not aware of any of the nine on Sanchez’s list having asked to go to Spain, or of Spain having been contacted with regard to taking them.

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