Cuba frees some prisoners, Castro makes rare TV appearance

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A first batch of political prisoners the Cuban government has agreed to free flew to Spain on Tuesday in what is expected to be the largest such release on the communist island in a decade.

Seven former detainees flew to Madrid late Monday along with about 30 of their close relatives, the first of 52 jailed dissidents authorized to leave Cuba, an official at the Spanish embassy told AFP.

Six of dissidents boarded a regularly scheduled Air Europa flight to Spain while the seventh flew on an Iberia airlines flight, the diplomat said.

The release of the 52, if completed, would mark the culmination of a surprise deal between the Catholic Church and the government last week after a politically embarrassing hunger strike by dissident Guillermo Farinas.

Havana is keen to avoid another dissident's death after Orlando Zapata's demise on February 23, as it seeks closer international ties to improve its grim economic situation.

The dissidents were held since Saturday at a hospital in a high-security prison in Havana where they underwent medical checks and migration procedures.

Family members, also examined by doctors, were waiting nervously at an Interior Ministry hotel southwest of Havana.

"Everything is so unexpected, no time to think, but I have the child and the luggage ready. The prisoners are happy," said Alida Viso, the wife of prisoner Ricardo Gonzalez, of the freedom-of-the-press group Reporters Without Borders.

Some observers saw the releases as marking a policy shift away from decades of hardline policy by ailing Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and his brother, President Raul Castro.

But critics shot down any such possibility.

"This does not imply a change in the repressive regime," said Angel De Fana, Miami-based director of the group Plantados of former Cuban political prisoners.

"These people are forced to leave because if they wanted to stay in Cuba, they would remain under a totalitarian regime and go back to being incarcerated."

The releases also came just as the revolutionary icon, who turns 84 this month, appeared on television for the first time in almost a year.

In an interview, Fidel Castro spoke of an "imminent" US and Israeli attack on Iran, and blamed the United States for secretly sinking a South Korean warship in March, then accusing North Korea of being behind the incident.

"It's his way of saying 'I'm here.' They are prisoners of Castro. They should never have been imprisoned, they are innocent," dissident Elizardo Sanchez told AFP. "We are concerned that this is barter -- prison for exile. Being uprooted has a negative impact on the family."

Castro has made only sporadic appearances -- either on television or in public -- since emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006 drove him to hand power to his younger brother Raul.

But despite the releases, Cuba continues to detain critics of the only one-party Communist regime in the Americas, often without charge, and enforces censorship with an iron fist.

"We will continue fighting for those left behind," Irene Viera told AFP, surrounded by piles of suitcases and telephones ringing off the hook. The wife of prisoner Julio Galvez said she had not slept in days.

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

Raul Castro has pledged 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 emigrants.

Church officials have said that so far, 20 of the 52 had agreed to leave Cuba for Spain.

On learning of the surprise church-state deal, one of the regime's fiercest critics, psychologist and online journalist Farinas, ended a more than four-month hunger strike.

© 2010 AFP

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