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Nine dissidents freed from prison, but scores remain behind bars

After more than seven years in prison, nine Cuban dissidents were freed this week.
After more than seven years in prison, nine Cuban dissidents were freed this week.

Jaime García/ABC

President Raúl Castro's government has agreed to release 52 of the 75 Cuban journalists, writers, activists, librarians and members of opposition political parties jailed in a major crackdown on dissent in 2003, known as the Black Spring. Eight journalists, who spent more than seven years in prison for their independent reporting, and another dissident arrived in Spain on 13 and 14 July in the first wave of freed political prisoners. IFEX members are concerned that freed dissidents must leave Cuba as a precondition of their release.

After negotiations between the Catholic Church of Cuba, the Cuban government and the Spanish Foreign Minister, 20 political prisoners have been identified for immediate release. Subsequent releases are to take place over the next three to four months. According to the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of International PEN, both the US and Chile have offered to take in dissidents. Twenty of the 52 detainees have agreed to go to Spain so far.

"We call on the Cuban government to provide the distressed families of those still in jail with detailed and timely information on their promised release. Cuban authorities should move speedily to free all of the remaining jailed journalists," said the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Exile to Spain does not "constitute a humane and satisfactory solution," says Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The releases should include the right of political opponents to live in their own country and defend their opinions without fear of imprisonment. Freedom House says it is a way for the government to physically erase opposition from the country. The regime "continues to restrict freedom in all its forms, whether of expression, the press, association or assembly," said the Inter American Press Association (IAPA).

Cuba is one of the world's worst jailers of journalists - behind only Iran and China. In 2003, after having closed, summary trials, journalists were sentenced to prison for up to 28 years on anti-state charges. The journalists had worked for independent news agencies and filed stories by phone and fax to overseas news outlets and websites.

As well as sometimes being tortured, prisoners suffer under poor conditions in detention - no ventilation, poor lighting, and bad food. They suffer from ailments such as depression, high blood pressure, chronic gastrointestinal problems and pneumonia.

The PEN American Center hailed the release of journalist Normando Hernández González, who was hospitalised repeatedly over the last seven years. He had been sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The announcement of the prisoners' release came during a four-month hunger strike by journalist Guillermo Fariñas, who was demanding the release of 26 political prisoners suffering from severe health issues. Fariñas began his hunger strike on 24 February, the day after a political prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died following his own 85-day hunger strike. Fariñas called off his hunger strike once he heard about the releases.

Since taking over the reigns of power from Fidel Castro in July 2006, Raul Castro has incarcerated scores of political prisoners, reports Human Rights Watch. A Cuban human rights group has documented 167 cases of current political prisoners. Human Rights Watch believes the number is much higher.

"So long as Cuba's draconian laws and sham trials remain in place, they will continue to restock the prison cells with new generations of innocent Cubans who dare to exercise their basic rights," said Human Rights Watch.

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  • Six journalists released, 16 to follow

    Their release follows talks between the Cuban government, the Catholic Church and the Spanish foreign minister, during which Cuba reportedly pledged to release 52 dissidents jailed in 2003 over the coming months.

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