7 Cuban political prisoners arrive in Madrid, first of 52 such prisoners to be freed

By Jorge Sainz, AP
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

7 Cuban political prisoners arrive in Spain

MADRID — Seven former political prisoners from Cuba smiled and gave victory signs Tuesday after they and their families arrived in Madrid, the first of 52 dissidents the Cuban government has promised to free in a historic policy shift.

In an action once deemed unthinkable, the Cuban government agreed last week to liberate those still imprisoned from a 2003 crackdown that jailed 75 activists. Spain, which along with the Roman Catholic Church negotiated the deal, agreed to accept the first group of exiles.

Those freed included Lester Gonzalez, Omar Ruiz, Antonio Villarreal, Julio Cesar Galvez, Jose Luis Garcia Paneque, Pablo Pacheco and Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso, according to Spain’s Foreign Ministry.

They arrived on two flights that left Havana on Monday night. Together with their families they numbered around 35.

Galvez read from a statement in name of the released.

“We hope that those that continue in Cuba will be able to enjoy the same liberties as we have at this moment,” he said. “Our arrival signals the start of a new period in the future of Cuba”

Another dissident denied that group was being used by the Cuban government.

“We don’t consider ourselves manipulated,” Gonzalez said.

Spain’s Secretary of Iberoamerican Affairs, Juan Pablo de Laiglesia, greeted the seven and said the release was the result of dialogue between Cuba, the church and Spain.

“Spain hopes this dialogue will arrive reach its port safely and produce all its fruits,” he said.

The Cubans will not be required to stay in Spain and will be free to head elsewhere, authorities said earlier.

The U.S. government also welcomed the release.

“We applaud the efforts of the Cuban Catholic Church, Spain and others who have worked towards the release of prisoners of conscience from jail in Cuba,” Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip J. Crowley said in a statement.

“While the United States continues to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, this is a positive development that we hope will represent a step towards increased respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba,” he added.

The church says another 13 opposition activists and dissidents behind bars will go free soon. It was not known if the rest of the 52 dissidents will be allowed to stay in Cuba or will be forced into exile, but both the U.S. and Chile have offered to grant them asylum, in addition to Spain.

Ruiz, who had been serving a 12-year sentence for treason, told The Associated Press in Cuba that he and six other former inmates were driven to Havana’s Jose Marti International airport, where they were reunited with relatives in a special waiting room. All were then escorted to the flights, but he said Cuban officials were watching them even then.

“That’s why I won’t consider myself free until I arrive in Spain,” he said.

Associated Press writers Will Weissert and Andrea Rodriguez in Havana, Ciaran Giles in Madrid and Ken Guggenheim in Washington contributed to this report.

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