Cuba moving in the right direction: Europe

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An agreement between Cuba and the Catholic Church to release 52 political prisoners was a step in the right direction, European officials said Thursday, urging Havana to end political detentions.

The European Union had been following the talks between the Church and Cuban government with interest and hoped they "will lead to the release of all political prisoners," EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said.

"The EU stands ready to work closely with the Cuban authorities and the Catholic Church to support this process," she said in a statement.

An EU spokesman said separately the announcement would be taken into account at a September meeting of EU foreign ministers on whether to improve relations with the communist-ruled island.

EU nations have since 1996 maintained a common position on Cuba that links dialogue to freedoms and human rights, a stance that Spain has said should be dropped.

The biggest prisoner release since President Raul Castro formally took power in Cuba in 2008 exceeds a bold demand made by a hunger-striker near death for some two dozen ill political detainees be freed.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, announced late Wednesday that five of the dissidents were to be released in the coming hours and would travel to Spain with their families.

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

In Italy diplomatic sources said the government was "pleased and relieved" with the agreement.

"It is a major decision in the framework of dialogue in Cuba between the Catholic Church and the government," one told AFP.

Warsaw called on Havana to continue releasing political prisoners.

"Poland considers the imminent release of 52 Cuban political prisoners a step in the right direction and hopes that other political prisoners will also find freedom soon," foreign ministry spokesman Piotr Paszkowski told AFP.

But the Czech Republic -- one of the countries that has blocked improved relations between Cuba and the EU -- said talk of a change in EU policy was "premature".

"The months to come will show whether it will be possible to appreciate the release not only of these 52 prisoners but of all political prisoners in Cuba," foreign ministry spokesman Filip Kanda told AFP.

"We must wait and see if the promises of the Cuban government are fulfilled. If they are, the Czech Republic will reflect it in its standpoints in talks with the EU," he said.

Spain is a strong advocate of normalising EU relations with Cuba and argues the bloc's position has yielded few results since it was adopted in 1996 and should be abandoned.

Its foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, was involved in talks between Castro and Ortega on the release of the 52 prisoners, who are among 75 dissidents rounded up in 2003 and sentenced to jail terms of six to 28 years.

© 2010 AFP

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