Cuba frees 52 political prisoners in deal with Church

The regime in Cuba has agreed to the biggest release of political prisoners seen on the island nation in decades in a deal struck with the country's Catholic leader, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, church officials said last night.

Under a deal reportedly struck by Cuban leader Raul Castro and Cardinal Ortega, some 52 political prisoners will be released and thereafter leave the country for exile in Spain. Also at the meeting were the Spanish Foreign Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, and his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez. The first five prisoners were reportedly set to be released last night, with the remainder expected to be freed over the coming weeks. Pressure on Havana to release the prisoners has been growing since the death of a prominent political dissident in February after a hunger strike to protest his continuing incarceration.

Another dissident, Giullermo Farinas, 48, is said to be close to death from a hunger strike. He has been in hospital on intravenous support and, according to reports in the state media this week, has developed a potentially fatal blood clot. While the move will be seen as a significant concession by the Castro regime, human rights groups will note that even with these releases an estimated 100 prisoners will remain behind bars in the communist country.

Cuba has long asserted that not one of its prisoners is there for political reasons, but only for having committed crimes or because they were "mercenaries" for the United States in a war to overthrow the Havana government.

Those now expected to walk free were caught in a round-up of about 75 leading opposition activists, community organisers and journalists as part of a harsh crackdown on dissent in March 2003. At the time, the incarcerations drew heavy foreign criticism of Cuba.

Early indications that the change of party in charge of the White House, with President Barack Obama replacing George Bush, would lead to a quick improvement of relations with Cuba have largely not been realised because of Washington's insistence that Cuba address human rights complaints.

The release of the prisoners may bring important momentum to improved contacts. But human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez of the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation warned against reading too much into the gesture.

"These liberations will not mean a significant improvement in the terrible situation of human rights that exists in Cuba," he said. "It's opening the prisons a little, and not to everyone."

Mr Sanchez, whose organisation is tolerated by the government, nonetheless admitted the scope of the release took him by surprise. "We were hoping for a significant release of prisoners, but not this."