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Cuba set to free 52 dissidents: church officials

Cuba has agreed to release 52 political prisoners, including five dissidents to be freed within hours Wednesday, after breakthrough talks led by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.

If the move goes ahead it would be the biggest prisoner release since President Raul Castro took over the reins of power from his hardline brother Fidel in 2008.

The remaining 47 dissidents will be freed within the next three to four months by the island’s Communist authorities, Roman Catholic church officials said in a statement.

The statement did not identify the political prisoners to be freed, nor did it mention high-profile dissident Guillermo Farinas, who is said to be near death from a months-long hunger strike.

But the news of the dissidents’ imminent release came after Spain’s top diplomat met with Cuban leaders in a bid to free the political prisoners and save Farinas’s life.

Moratinos met in Havana with President Raul Castro, dissident leaders and top church officials to achieve the breakthrough.

The statement from Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, said Ortega was informed that in the coming hours, the five prisoners “will be released and will leave shortly for Spain in the company of their families.”

The dissidents were among 75 people arrested in 2003, many of whom now are in ill health.

Farinas’s deteriorating condition has been reported, unusually, in the official communist party newspaper Granma in what observers say is an attempt to defuse international criticism should he die.

He has been refusing food since February while demanding the release of 25 political prisoners with failing health.

After the start of the church mediation, Farinas said he was willing to end his fast if 10 to 12 prisoners were released, but on Wednesday his spokeswoman Licet Zamora told AFP Farinas was waiting for official news.

“I just spoke with him by telephone, he is skeptical and in disbelief,” she said. “No one has communicated anything officially, the church has not contacted him. Until such time, he will not consider ending the hunger strike.”

The Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission (CCDHRN) — an outlawed but tolerated dissident group — estimates there are 167 political prisoners in the Caribbean nation of more than 11 million people.

The church began a dialogue with the government on May 19 in the face of hunger strikes that drew attention to the plight of dissident prisoners. As a result of the talks, one prisoner was released and another 12 were transferred to facilities closer to their families.

Moratinos has said if his visit was a success, it would help toward lifting the EU common position on Cuba, which has, since 1996, conditioned relations between the European Union and Havana on progress in human rights here.

The news was welcomed by Cuban dissidents living in Spain, who said it was a “positive gesture” as long as the prisoners were not forced into exile.

If they are forced to leave then the releases would “only be a smokescreen aimed at convincing the European Union to change its stand,” said Ernesto Gutierrez, head of the Spanish Federation of Cuban associations.

Spain wants a bilateral cooperation agreement with Cuba, but many other EU nations have opposed taking a softer stand to Havana.