Cuba will free 52 political prisoners and allow them to leave the island, Roman Catholic church officials announced Wednesday in a surprising concession that would be the largest release of jailed dissidents in more than a decade.
The announcement came after the latest round of unprecedented talks between Cuban ruler Raul Castro and Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega on the island's estimated 167 political prisoners and broader human rights issues.
Ortega was told five prisoners would be freed Wednesday, and have permission to leave soon for Spain, and another 47 would be released over the next three to four months, Havana archbishopric spokesman Orlando Marquez wrote in a statement.
The 52 were the last of the 75 dissidents arrested in Cuba's "Black Spring" crackdown in 2003 still in prison, Marquez wrote. The 75 were sentenced to prison terms of up to 28 years after one- and two-day trials on charges of conspiring with Washington. Two dozen were previously released for health reasons.
Cuba has been under withering criticisms for human rights abuses since the Feb. 23 death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata after a lengthy hunger strike and harassments of the Ladies in White — female relatives of the 75 — by pro-government mobs.
The announced releases drew cautiously optimistic comments from the Ladies in White as well as the Obama administration and the European Union, which have been urging Cuba to clean up its human rights record if it wants to clear the way for improved diplomatic relations.
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