Cuba to transfer some political prisoners closer to home, grant others medical treatment

By Anne-marie Garcia, AP
Sunday, May 23, 2010

Cuba to transfer political prisoners close to home

HAVANA — The Cuban government has agreed to move many of the country’s 200 political prisoners to jails closer to their homes, and will give medical attention to some ailing prisoners, a church official told The Associated Press on Sunday.

The government’s decision comes just days after a rare meeting between Cuban President Raul Castro and two church leaders, including Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega. After the meeting, Ortega said he was optimistic that there was willingness on the government’s side to compromise.

“The office of religious affairs of the central committee of the Cuban Communist Party advised the Catholic Church on Friday that as of next week the political prisoners will be transferred to jails in their place of origin,” Orlando Marquez, a Havana church official, told AP.

It was not clear if all of the political prisoners would be moved, or how many of those who are ailing will receive treatment.

Marquez also said that a senior church leader, Havana auxiliary bishop Juan de Dios Hernandez, had visited hunger-striking dissident Guillermo Farinas in his home in central Cuba on Saturday to tell him of the government’s decision to move the prisoners.

Farinas has refused food for 89 days, though he receives nutrients through a tube and has appeared strong and alert in recent phone conversations with the AP.

Another Cuban dissident, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died Feb. 23 after a lengthy hunger strike in jail.

Farinas called his hunger strike to protest Zapata Tamayo’s death, and has said since then that his main demand is better treatment for 26 political prisoners said to be in poor health.

He told the AP on Sunday that Hernandez had assured him that some of the ailing political prisoners would be transferred to hospitals, though he did not know how many.

Farinas said that “given the show of good faith” on the part of the government, he would be willing to end his hunger strike if the government provides church officials with a schedule for the liberation of the others.

The government had no immediate comment on the supposed concession. Cuba’s communist leaders have long denounced members of the opposition as common criminals and paid stooges of Washington. As recently as this month, Cuban officials have denied that the country holds any political prisoners.

But there have been several signs in recent weeks that Cuban leaders are taking a more conciliatory approach to the dissidents.

On May 2, the government reversed a decision barring the Ladies in White — composed of the wives and mothers of jailed dissidents — from holding their weekly march. The breakthrough followed Ortega’s mediation.

The meeting Wednesday between Ortega and Raul Castro was covered extensively by state-controlled media, and a photo of the men and another church leader was printed on the front page of the Communist Party-newspaper Granma.

The day after the meeting, Ortega said no deal had been reached on prisoner releases, but he called the meeting — which lasted more than four hours — a “magnificent start.”

Another church leader who was at the meeting, Archbishop Dionisio Garcia, told AP “that there was good will” on the part of the government on the issue of dissidents.

Associated Press Writer Paul Haven contributed to this report.

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