Over 2,500 Cuban prisoners released


HAVANA – More than 2,500 Cuban prisoners have been released in recent days under a New Year’s amnesty announced before a visit next spring by Pope Benedict XVI, a local human rights group said yesterday.

Cuban president Raúl Castro had said the ruling council of state had granted amnesty to more than 2,900 common prisoners as a “humanitarian gesture”.

It had also “taken into account” an upcoming papal visit and requests by, among others, top Roman Catholic Church officials in Cuba and relatives of the prisoners.

“We estimate that more than 2,500 prisoners have been released in all the provinces, and the process continues,” said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights.

The government and official media have not commented on the releases.

The Cuban Commission on Human Rights welcomed the releases but said it was a limited gesture. It calculated that there are between 70,000 and 80,000 Cubans in prison. Mr Sanchez said those freed so far included five political prisoners.

Cuba released 130 political prisoners in a deal brokered by the Catholic Church in 2010. But dissidents have said there are still at least 60 behind bars for political reasons, including some convicted of boat and plane hijackings and spying.

Mr Castro said the amnesty covered people more than 60 years of age, ailing prisoners, women and some young inmates who had no previous criminal history, as well as a few prisoners who had been convicted for crimes against “the security of the state”. The Cuban president said 86 foreigners from 25 countries convicted of committing crimes in Cuba were also on the amnesty list.

Western diplomats said they were waiting to be contacted by Cuban authorities about their nationals in Cuban prisons.

US contractor Alan Gross, who began serving a 15-year prison term this year after being convicted of participating in a semi-covert US democracy-building programme to establish a clandestine internet platform in Cuba, was not on the list, Cuban officials said.

The US government and Gross family insist the contractor was simply helping Jewish groups connect with each other and Jews around the world. – (Reuters)