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    Cuba frees political prisoners ahead of talks on EU sanctions

    26 April 2007 19:31

    Cuba frees political prisoners ahead of talks on EU sanctions
    By David Usborne in New York
    Published: 26 April 2007

    Cuba appears to have taken a step towards blunting international
    criticism of repression on the island with the release of seven
    political prisoners, including the well-known dissident leader Jorge
    Luis Garcia Perez. He had serv-ed 17 years in jail and wrote a book from
    his cell about his imprisonment. Cuban opposition and human rights
    groups confirmed that Mr Perez, more widely known as Antunez, was freed
    on Sunday.

    On Tuesday, the authorities released another six men, whose arrests in
    2005 led to the adoption of sanctions by the European Union, which have
    since been lifted temporarily.

    The releases come ahead of a high-level meeting between Cuba and Spain
    at which Havana will seek the permanent end of EU sanctions. The six
    freed men are Lazaro Alonso Roman, Manuel Perez Soria, Elio Enrique
    Chavez Ramon, Jose Diaz Silva, Emilio Leyva Perez and Dulian Ramirez

    While buoyed by the releases, opposition groups in Havana warned against
    over-interpreting their significance, noting that most had served their
    full terms.

    They contrasted the releases with the recent sentencing of two other men
    at closed trials, one for a term of 12 years for writing anti-government
    graffiti on public buildings, distributing critical literature and
    exposing state secrets.

    None of those freed this week were among the 75 journalists and critics
    arrested in a crackdown in March 2003 that sparked worldwide
    condemnation of Havana. Of those, 16 have been freed but only for
    medical reasons.

    "We don't see anything special in this," said Elizardo Sanchez of the
    Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a group in
    Havana barely tolerated by the regime. Of Mr Perez, he added: "We are
    happy for his release, but he is coming into the streets of a country
    under a government that doesn't respect any civil, political and
    economic rights."

    Fathoming the true intentions of the Cuban government remains difficult
    with Raul Castro in control. He took over last July after his brother
    Fidel, founder of the revolution, had what appears to have been botched
    intestinal surgery.

    Months later the true condition of Fidel remains obscured in mystery.
    Pictures were released of a more robust looking Fidel in a tracksuit
    during a meeting with Chinese government officials last Friday. It has
    since emerged that the meeting took place inside a Havana hospital.

    Observers in Washington believe that it is unlikely that he will return
    to power given the length of his illness. "An 80-year-old man who …
    still wears a tracksuit when he meets with foreign dignitaries suggests
    this is an extremely serious illness still," one official said.

    According to human rights and opposition groups there are nearly 300
    dissidents imprisoned in Cuba for political reasons. The regime
    continues to assert that there are no political prisoners behind bars
    except for those it considers counter-revolutionary mercenaries in the
    pay of the United States.

    Human rights groups are meanwhile continuing to highlight the cases of
    two men recently sentenced.

    One, Rolando Jimenez, is reported to have been given a 12-year prison
    term last weekend at a closed trial, from which his family was barred.
    He did not have a defence lawyer and has already spent four years in prison.

    Earlier this month, an independent journalist, Oscar Sanchez, was
    reportedly sentenced to four years in prison after being charged with
    alleged, "social dangerousness".

    Mr Sanchez had been writing about dissidents in Cuba and was apparently
    arrested on 13 April and tried the same day.



    One of Cuba's best known political prisoners, he served 17 years and 34
    days in prison after being convicted of "verbal enemy propaganda",
    "attempted sabotage", including setting fire to sugar cane fields, and
    failing to respect the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. Perez, more widely
    known as Antunez, was among prisoners that Pope John II petitioned the
    regime to release before a 1998 visit to Cuba.

    Status: freed


    On his release, he said he had been arrested and imprisoned for
    so-called "public disorder" during an anti-government protest rally in
    Havana in July 2005. Defiant still, he insisted: "I am an opponent of
    this government and my life is fully dedicated to this, because I am on
    the right side. This country is screaming for economic, political and
    social changes."

    Status: freed


    The dissident lawyer was jailed without charge four years ago. In 2004
    Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience. Accused of
    writing anti-government slogans, including "Down With Castro", on public
    buildings and revealing state secrets, he was sentenced to 12 years at a
    closed trial last weekend where he was barred from defending himself.

    Status: in prison


    An independent journalist who wrote for a Miami-based website, CubaNet,
    was arrested at his home on 13 April and convicted the same day at a
    closed trial on the vague charge of "social dangerousness". He had been
    writing articles on the hardships faced by the people of Cuba and about
    the work of dissidents. He was sentenced to four years in prison.

    Status: in prison


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