Cuba releases 3,500 prisoners ahead of Pope Francis visit

The government announced similar prisoner releases during previous papal visits

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The Independent US

Cuba has said it will pardon and release more than 3,500 prisoners ahead of an important visit late this month by Pope Francis.

State media said on Friday that the government would release 3,522 prisoners on the occasion of the 19-22 September visit, repeating similar actions it took ahead of two previous papal visits.

There was no immediate indication whether those to be pardoned included people considered political prisoners by dissidents or human rights organisations, Reuters said.

Cuba, which officially denies it has political prisoners, said those convicted of crimes against state security would not be among the 3,522 to be pardoned and released within three days.

The exemptions would rule out freedom for some of the estimated 60 people identified as political prisoners by the dissident Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Among the most celebrated is artist Danilo Maldonado, alias "El Sexto", who is awaiting trial on a charge of "disrespect" for painting "Fidel" and "Raul" on a pair of pigs in a satire of former President Fidel Castro and his brother, current President Raul Castro, the commission said.

The Roman Catholic Church in Cuba would not comment on the pardons until bishops had met to discuss them, a church spokesman said.

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The Ladies in White have long called for the release of dissidents

Pope’s Francis' visit this month is part of steadily improving relations between Cuba and the Catholic Church after decades of strained ties in the years after the 1959 Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro.

Cuba released about 300 prisoners including 101 political prisoners ahead of Pope John Paul's landmark visit in 1998. Cuba freed 2,900 common prisoners ahead of the 2012 visit by Pope Benedict.

More recently, Cuba released 53 political prisoners in conjunction with the 17 December announcement of detente with United States.

Cuba at that time also freed American aid contractor Alan Gross, who had been held for five years, and a Cuban man who had been caught spying for the Americans, the latter in exchange for three Cuban spies held in the United States.

Among those to be released now are prisoners older than 60, those younger than 20 with no previous criminal history, the chronically ill, women, some who were due for conditional release in 2016, and foreigners whose repatriation could be assured, Cuba said.

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