Freed Cuban political prisoners arrive in Spain

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A first batch of Cuban dissidents arrived in Spain on Tuesday as part of an agreement to release 52 political prisoners, the biggest gesture of its kind by the government in Havana in a decade.

The six men arrived at Madrid's Barajas airport on a regular Air Europa flight at around 12:50 pm (1050 GMT) accompanied by 33 close family members, a Spanish foreign ministry official at the airport told reporters.

A seventh political prisoner was due to arrive at the airport on an Iberia flight later on Tuesday, he added.

The seven men, who are between the ages of 33 and 65, will give a press conference later on Tuesday at the airport. They were serving prison terms of between 15 and 24 years and they all had health problems.

Cuba agreed last Wednesday to free the 52 political prisoners in a surprise deal between the Roman Catholic Church after a hunger strike to near-death by dissident Guillermo Farinas.

Havana wants to avoid a repeat of the death in detention of dissident Orlando Zapata on February 23 as it seeks closer international ties to improve its grim economic situation.

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

Spain, which helped broker the deal between the Cuban government and the Church, has said it is willing to receive all of the prisoners after their release.

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

In addition to the first seven, the thirteen other political prisoners are expected to depart Cuba for Spain over the coming days, according to Cuba's Roman Catholic Church.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said Monday that Spain would provide "logistical support" to the political prisoners and their families through the Red Cross and the Spanish Commission for Assistance to Refugees.

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 broadcast on Monday night, 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 in Cuba. "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.

© 2010 AFP

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