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Cuba frees first of 52 political prisoners scheduled to be released

The Cuban government on Saturday freed the first of 52 political prisoners who will be released as part of an agreement [JURIST report] with the Roman Catholic Church [church website], which was brokered by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos [official website, in Spanish]. According to reports, three of the political dissidents were released [AFP report] from custody and taken to an undisclosed location where they will await a transfer to Spain. Spain has formally agreed to accept the first five prisoners scheduled to be freed and has also informally agreed to accept all 52 of the prisoners. Under the agreement, five prisoners are scheduled to be released [AP report] almost immediately, while several others will be moved to prisons closer to Havana in anticipation of the remaining 47 being released within the next two months. The political prisoners scheduled to be released were all captured as part of a 2003 tightening on dissent within the country. A total of 75 dissidents were arrested at that time, although 23 have subsequently been released. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay [official website] on Friday said she welcomed the release of the prisoners [press release] and that she hopes it will be "the start of a series of significant steps to advance the protection of human rights in Cuba."

Cuba continues to face criticism for its human rights record. Earlier this month, Amnesty International (AI) [advocacy website] criticized the Cuban legal system [JURIST report], stating that the government's restrictions on freedom of expression create a "climate of fear" among journalists and activists. The report follows a statement released by AI in March urging the Cuban authorities [JURIST report] to "revoke laws that restrict freedom of expression, assembly and association and to release all dissidents unfairly detained by the authorities." Also in March, the US State Department [official website] criticized Cuba for interfering with the right to privacy in its 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices [materials; JURIST report]. In November, Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] released a report [JURIST report] claiming that the Cuban government continued to repress dissidents and violate fundamental civil liberties of Cubans, and resorted to imposing short-term imprisonment measures to elude international critique. According to a February 2009 report by the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) [El Pais backgrounder, in Spanish], the number of political prisoners in Cuba had declined [JURIST report] from 234 in January 2008 to 205, while the number of brief detentions had increased.

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