Cuba dissident ends hunger strike

8th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

A leading Cuban dissident on Thursday ended a 135-day hunger strike after the communist government said it would free 52 political prisoners, raising hopes for improved international ties.

"(Guillermo) Farinas has from this moment stopped the hunger strike," opposition leader Gisela Delgado told AFP, after visiting the frail psychologist in hospital in the central city of Santa Clara.

Farinas has been in intensive care since suffering a hypoglycemic shock two weeks after beginning his protest at the end of February, a day after another dissident, Orlando Zapata, died following an 85-day hunger strike.

Cuba late Wednesday agreed to free 52 political prisoners in a surprise church-state deal promising the biggest such release since President Raul Castro formally took power in 2008.

Foreign observers on Thursday lauded the announcement, with some, including the United States and Spain, providing offers of asylum.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the step was overdue but "a positive sign," and many in Europe welcomed the move, also calling for the release of all political prisoners.

Farinas had said he would not end his strike until at least five political prisoners were released, having dropped his original demand for 25 to be freed once church mediation was under way.

The first five were to be freed in the coming hours and would travel shortly to Spain with their families, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, announced late Wednesday.

The remaining 47 are to be freed within the next three to four months.

The 52 were among 75 dissidents rounded up in 2003 and sentenced to jail terms of six to 28 years.

Talks between Ortega and Castro also involved Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who said the pending move opened "a new era."

Moratinos said Castro, during their six-hour meeting, had assured him that relatives and the exiles themselves would be able to return to visit Cuba and that the property of dissidents who leave the country would not be confiscated -- measures that would imply a change in Cuban policy.

The Church statement did not identify the prisoners to be freed, nor did it mention Farinas.

Cuban's state-controlled newspapers on Thursday included the announcement of the prisoner release, without further details.

Farinas's deteriorating condition had, unusually, been reported in the official Communist Party newspaper Granma, in what observers considered an attempt to defuse international criticism should he die.

US officials have said the release of political prisoners is a necessary step before the two governments can improve their often strained relations, with a decades-long US trade embargo still in place.

President Barack Obama's administration however last lifted travel and money transfer restrictions on Cuban-Americans with relatives in the Caribbean nation.

Asked if the United States would consider accepting freed prisoners headed for Spain, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said: "Absolutely."

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

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton "looks forward to the rapid implementation of this decision" to release the prisoners, according to a statement in Brussels.

The Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission 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. As a result of the talks, one prisoner has been released and another 12 were transferred to facilities closer to their families.

© 2010 AFP

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