[QODLink]
Americas
Cuban dissidents arrive in Spain
Seven political prisoners reach Madrid after being freed by Havana following deal.
Last Modified: 14 Jul 2010 09:33 GMT


Alan Fisher reports on Cuban dissidents resuming vocal opposition against their country's government in exile

Seven political prisoners released by Cuba have arrived in Spain along with their close relatives, the first of 52 authorised to leave the country.

Lester Gonzalez, Omar Ruiz, Antonio Villarreal, Julio Cesar Galvez, Pablo Pacheco and Jose Luis Garcia Paneque arrived at Madrid's Barajas airport on a regular Air Europa flight at 12:50 pm (1050 GMT).

Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso, a seventh political prisoner, arrived later on Tuesday on an Iberia airlines flight.

The deal to release dozens of opposition leaders, journalists and activists was brokered on Wednesday at a meeting between Raul Castro, Cuba's president, and Jaime Ortega, a Roman Catholic cardinal.

Church role

The group, the first wave of Cuba's biggest release of jailed dissidents since 1998, have expressed their joy at being released.

"You can imagine how a man in prison for seven years, including 17 months in solitary, must feel," said Garcia.

The prisoners were accompanied by members of their family, Garcia said.

The Catholic church has taken an increasingly public role in relations between the government and the opposition since the death of a jailed dissident hunger striker in February.

PJ Crowley, a spokesman for the US state department, said: "We welcome the release of seven political prisoners by the government of Cuba and the announcement by the Archbishop of Havana that additional prisoners could be released in the coming months. 

"We applaud the efforts of the Cuban Catholic church, Spain and others who have worked towards the release of prisoners of conscience from jail in Cuba."

Restrictions on Cuba

Stephen Wilkinson, the director of the Centre for Caribbean and Latin American Studies at London Metropolitan University, said that the release of the prisoners came at a key diplomatic moment.

"The timing is acute because at the moment the European Union has put into abeyance its restrictions on Cuba, the so-called common position, and also in the United States there is a bill going through congress that would relax the embargo on trade and tourism," he said.

"This release of prisoners at this moment will assist them in both places that are trying to argue for an easing of the pressures on Havana ... It says to them 'now we have released these prisoner what are you going to do for us?'"  

The detainees were among 75 political dissidents arrested in a 2003 government crackdown that resulted in lengthy prison terms on treason and other charges.

They have been serving sentences ranging from 13 to 24 years for violations of Cuban laws aimed at curbing opposition, and what the government views as subversive activities.

'Repressive regime'

Church officials announced on Thursday the names of the first five prisoners to be released, and said all had accepted asylum in Spain, as did those on a list of 12 announced on Saturday.

"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"

Angel De Fana,
Cuban activist

Neither the church nor the Cuban government has said whether agreeing to exile is a requirement of release, with Ortega describing exile as an "option".

"The Vatican is probably the government that has the strongest relationship with Havana at the moment and within the island, the Catholic church has had a greater role as an interlocutor," Wilkinson said.

Raul Castro has pledged that 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.

While the government's promise to release prisoners has raised hopes on the island, praise from outside has been grudging, particularly from human rights groups and the US.

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

"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." 

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, praised the development on Thursday, but described the releases as "overdue".

Amnesty International, the UK-based human-rights group, said it would continue to campaign for all of Cuba's prisoners of conscience to be freed and sent home immediately.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
Topics in this article
People
Country
City
Organisation
Featured on Al Jazeera
The author argues that in the new economy, it's people, not skills or majors, that have lost value.
Colleagues of detained Al Jazeera journalists press demands for their release, 100 days after their arrest in Egypt.
Mehdi Hasan discusses online freedoms and the potential of the web with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.
A tight race seems likely as 814 million voters elect leaders in world's largest democracy next week.
Featured
Activists say 'Honor Diaries' documentary exploits gender-based violence to further an anti-Islamic agenda.
As Syria's civil war escalates along the Turkish border, many in Turkey are questioning the country's involvement.
Treatment for autism in the region has progressed, but lack of awareness and support services remains a challenge.
The past isn't far away for a people exiled from Crimea by Russia and the decades it took to get home.
New report highlights plight of domestic helpers in the United Kingdom, with critics comparing it to kefala system.
join our mailing list