Cuban dissident hails prisoner release as major step forward

11th July 2010, Comments 0 comments

Cuba's decision to release 52 political prisoners represents the biggest step forward by the island's now Communist government since it came to power, a leading dissident said Sunday.

"It is the government's most serious advance in 50 years in the search for national unity and it could open a new era," Hector Palacios said in an interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais.

"If the government starts to shift, that would be good for everybody. The first condition would be that there are no political prisoners," said Palacios, who was one of the "Group of 75" dissidents jailed in 2003.

Palacios, who was released in 2007 on health grounds, said the government would have no choice but to continue freeing prisoners for political, social and economic reasons.

"This is a critical moment and the regime knows it, it must make concessions. If it doesn't carry out economic reforms, the revolution won't last another year," he said.

The unusual prisoner release was announced earlier this week after unprecedented talks between Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the leader of Cuba's Catholic church, and President Raul Castro.

The deal followed a hunger strike to near death by dissident Guillermo Farinas, who launched his protest in February following the death by hunger strike of another dissident, Orlando Zapata.

Cuba's Communist Party -- which has ruled the country as a one-party state since 1965 -- is keen to avoid the political embarrassment of another dissident's death as it desperately seeks closer international ties to improve its grim economic situation.

All of the 52 slated for release under Wednesday's deal are members of the Group of 75.

Palacios said there was no longer any reason for the European Union to maintain its common position against normalisation of relations with Havana.

Spain's socialist government normalised relations in 2007, and has pushed for the EU to do likewise, but other members have objected citing continuing human rights concerns.

© 2010 AFP

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