Church says Cuban government will free ailing political prisoner, make other concessions

By Paul Haven, AP
Friday, June 11, 2010

Church: Cuba agrees to free political prisoner

HAVANA — Roman Catholic leaders announced Friday that Cuban authorities have agreed to free an ill political prisoner and transfer six others to jails nearer home, the latest in a rare series of concessions from a government not known for its tolerance of dissent.

The decision means freedom for Ariel Sigler, one of 75 activists, community organizers and journalists arrested in a 2003 crackdown. Sigler, who was serving a 25-year sentence for treason, has been hospitalized recently for an unknown ailment.

Six other prisoners — Hector Fernando Maceda, Juan Adolfo Fernandez, Omar Moises Ruiz, Efren Fernandez, Jesus Mustafa Felipe and Juan Carlos Herrera — will be moved to jails closer to their homes, bringing to 12 the number of imprisoned dissidents sent to new facilities this month.

“This will be a relief for the families. The release of Sigler is very good news,” Elizardo Sanchez, who heads the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, told The Associated Press.

The moves, announced by the office of Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega, are set to take place Saturday. They come just days before a visit to Cuba by the Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti.

Opposition and church leaders had expressed hope the communist government might make concessions ahead of the trip, the first to Cuba by a top Vatican official since Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of state to Pope Benedict XVI, visited the island in February 2008.

Mamberti is heading a gathering that is due to wade into some deeply political issues, holding discussions on the country’s economic and social problems as well as the issue of Cuban emigration and its effect on the family.

The church has suddenly become a major political voice in Cuba, apparently with the consent of President Raul Castro’s government.

In May, Ortega negotiated an end to a ban on marches by a small group of wives and mothers of some of the dissidents jailed in 2003 known as the Ladies in White.

The cardinal and another church leader later met with Castro, coming away from the encounter convinced the government was prepared to start on a road to better relations with the opposition. Shortly after, church officials announced the government would allow transfers for prisoners held far from their homes and give better access to medical care for inmates who need it.

Sigler’s release would be the first since negotiations began, and would raise hopes that more are on the way. Many opposition figures previously expressed disappointment the church-government talks had not produced more results. Church officials have been careful not to be seen to be publicly pressuring the government for faster action.

On Thursday, Havana church official Orlando Marquez said he hoped for more progress, but no promises had been made or deadlines set.

Laura Pollan, head of the Ladies in White, told the AP before the transfers began that at least 17 of those rounded up in 2003 were being held at jails outside their home provinces, 11 were older than 60, and 26 suffered from serious health problems. Sanchez, the right activist, said Cuba is holding some 180 political prisoners, well below the number a decade ago.

The government had no immediate comment. In the past, it has left it to church officials to announce the concessions.

Cuba denies it is holding any political prisoners. It says that those being held are common criminals and mercenaries sent by Washington to destabilize the government, and that every government has a right to arrest traitors.

The six men to be transferred to jails closer to their homes were serving terms ranging between 12 and 25 years.

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