Thursday, October 7, 2010

Cuba Offers Release, Exile to Select Political Prisoners

Óscar Elías Biscet was sentenced to 25 years for "disorderly conduct" and "counter-revolutionary activities" in 2002. Still in prison, he refuses to leave the country
According to leading human rights activists, Cuba's government has offered early release to about a dozen inmates so long as they go into exile. The islanders must chose between prison and their homeland. If such a deal is in fact realized, it would be the government's second major release of political prisoners this year. While the Cuban government's motives for implementing such actions are still uncertain, it might be viewed as an attempt to mend relations with the United States.

In recent days, agents from the Ministry of the Interior visited the inmates and proposed the conditions of their possible freedom, said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

 This past July, Cuban president Raul Castro agreed to the release of 52 political prisoners, including community organizers, human rights activists, agitators, and journalists who have defied state regulation on local papers. This historical event was supported by officials from the Cuban Roman Catholic Church and Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, archbishop of Havana, who supported the deal in favor of better conditions for prisoners of conscience. Since July, 39 prisoners have been released and sent to Spain with their families, with the exception of one who was exiled to Chile. With the remaining few awaiting tentative release, this could mean that all 75 of the top activists imprisoned during the "Black Spring," a period of government crackdown on organized disobedience in March 2003, would be freed.

Cuba's Roman Catholic cardinal, Jaime Ortega, reports that at least five of the prisoners who were given release under the July agreement are reluctant to leave. This may possibly harm the prospect of future releases. However, if all 52 are finally freed, the only other prisoner that will remain unreleased is a lawyer named Rolando Jimenez Pozada. He is considered to be a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International after he was arrested in 2003 for dissidence, disrespect for the law, and unveiling government secrets.

While the number of political prisoners unacknowledged by the Cuban government is always up for debate, Sanchez released a list of about 105 other names. Only about 40 of them, though, could be defined as nonviolent political prisoners, while others have been charged with more violent crimes, such as hijacking and murder. Sanchez's list includes the name of three men: Francisco Reyes Rodriguez, Lazaro Avila Sierra, and Leudia Arce Romero. They are serving life sentences for hijacking a plane from Cuba's Isla de la Juventud in 2003. The one exception to the list was Pavel Hernandez, who was sentenced to six years in jail for attempting to flee the island illegally.

At least five of the 12 prisoners to be newly released are reluctant to accept the offer if it is finalized. According to a founder of the Ladies in White group, the prisoners say they refuse to be forced to move to Spain as a condition of the agreement, but that some say they will accept release solely for reasons related to their age and health. Hector Maseda, who will serve his full 20 years, has decided that he will remain on the island. His wife, Pollan, reports that many sectors of the internal opposition are charging the Cuban authorities with manipulating what is supposed to be a better situation for the prisoners and their families by granting their release only if they leave to Spain.

Berta Soler, spokeswoman for the Women in White, told reporters, "The government is applying psychological pressure to those remaining in prison because they want to see them out of the country." Her husband, Angel Moya, is staying to serve his 20-year sentence.

Of the group of five prisoners who plan to turn down the release under such conditions, three men are suffering from critical health issues. Among them is Pedro Arguelles Moran, who has arthrosis, advanced cataracts, and circulatory problems. The advanced age of some of the inmates is also a critical issue. Ramos, who at the age of 68 is the oldest of the group of 52 being released, is anxious to be freed but is worried about being forced to travel to Spain because he and his wife are too old, his wife told reporters. The remaining prisoners want to be released, but without the condition of having to leave Cuba. This includes Oscar Elias Biscet, who in absence received the Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2007, and is still serving his 25-year sentence. In a telephone conversation from Biscet's house in Havana, Biscet's wife told reporters, "My husband has suffered many pains and health complications, but he is holding his ground. He is a man of his word." The government's refusal to release the prisoners who wish to stay on the island has caused their families much pain and anxiety.

Elizardo Sanchez told reporters that the release will allegedly take place during the first weeks of October. He has also added that there may be yet another release of a larger group of prisoners, but only under the condition that they leave Cuba. Therefore, the issue of potential future releases also depends on the European Union Council, who should meet this month to discuss the issue. However, this may not be a definitive priority for the EU in terms of global scope, says Joaquin Roy, director of the European Union Center at the University of Miami, told reporters

By Gabriela Lorido

From: The Heights

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