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Cuba starts releasing group of political prisoners

Cuba’s government Saturday began releasing a group of ailing political prisoners as part of an unprecedented church-brokered deal to free 52 dissidents, relatives of three freed inmates told AFP.

If all 52 activists are freed, it would be the largest prisoner release since President Raul Castro took Cuba’s reins permanently from his brother Fidel Castro in 2008.

The first three dissidents released Saturday were taken to undisclosed locations and were reportedly among a group of 17 of the dissidents who plan to go to Spain.

Dissident Jose Luis Garcia Paneque phoned his family to tell them he was being transferred from the Las Tunas provincial prison to a location in Havana, according to his cousin Raul Smith.

The wives of dissidents Pablo Pacheco and Luis Milan received calls from other inmates telling them that their husbands had been released.

A church official said earlier Saturday that 10 Cuban dissidents would be freed and would travel to Spain “soon,” as part of the deal negotiated by the Cuban Roman Catholic church.

Under the agreement, 52 political prisoners will eventually be freed, but the initial release had been expected to include just five detainees.

On Thursday, the church had announced that five prisoners would be freed imminently, but none were apparently set free until the announcement of the first three releases on Saturday.

Several families of imprisoned dissidents told AFP they had been contacted by authorities and told to be prepared to travel after their relatives were released.

On Saturday, the Archbishop of Havana said in a statement that another five detainees would be “leaving soon to Spain” as part of “the continuation of the process of prisoner releases.”

The unusual prisoner release was announced earlier this week after unprecedented talks between Cardinal Jaime Ortega and President Raul Castro, who leads the only one-party communist regime in the Americas.

All 52 were part of a group of 75 dissidents rounded up in 2003 and sentenced to jail terms of between six and 28 years.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who was in Cuba this week to participate in the negotiations, said Madrid was willing to receive all the freed prisoners.

But the church said prisoners will not be forced to go to Spain, calling it a “proposal” and not “exile,” as some in opposition activists charge.

The release agreement prompted opposition activist Guillermo Farinas, a psychologist and online journalist, to abandon a 135-day hunger strike protesting the treatment of political prisoners.

It was also been praised by Washington, which said the release was long overdue but welcome.

Some dissidents want to seek medical care in Spain before returning to Cuba; others expect to stay in Spain, according to Elizardo Sanchez, of the outlawed information clearinghouse Cuban Committee for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Moratinos said Castro pledged that the dissidents would be allowed to return to Cuba with special permits, and would not lose their property in Cuba, as is normally the case for those who emigrate.

The Cuban government is keen to avoid the political embarrassment of a dissident’s death, as it desperately seeks closer international ties to improve its grim economic situation.

Farinas launched his protest at the end of February, a day after another dissident, Orlando Zapata, died following an 85-day hunger strike.

His death sparked an international outcry and a rare reference to dissent in official Cuban media, which denied claims by Zapata’s mother that her son was denied proper medical care and was effectively “killed.”