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US rejects Castro prisoner exchange offer

Latest update : 2008-12-19

The US State Department has rejected an offer by Cuban President Raul Castro to release jailed dissidents and let them leave the country in exchange for five Cubans accused of spying in the United States. Cuba has 219 political prisoners behind bars.

AFP - Cuba's offer Thursday to release jailed political dissidents in Cuba in exchange for five Cubans convicted of spying in the United States was rejected by the State Department and Cuban rights groups.
When asked in the Brazilian capital about Cuban political dissidents, President Raul Castro responded by proposing an exchange.
"Those prisoners that you talk about -- they (the United States) want them released? Let them tell us, we'll send them over there with families and all. Let them return our five heroes. It is gesture from both sides," Castro said.
The 77-year-old also said that improved ties with the United States would not happen only through "unilateral gestures," a month before Barack Obama takes over the US presidency.
The US State Department rejected the proposal shortly afterward.
"The issue of political prisoners held against their will, merely for making peaceful protests, is independent of the case of the five spies tried and convicted under due process of the US judicial system," the department's deputy spokesman Robert Wood told AFP.
The five Cubans were convicted of espionage conspiracy against the United States and sentenced in a Miami, Florida federal court to long prison terms in June 2001.
They include an aerodrome construction engineer, two international relations graduates, an economics graduate and a pilot.
The men had argued that they were monitoring Florida-based anti-Castro groups to prevent terrorist attacks on Cuba, and that their work was not directed against the US government.
In Cuba, there are 219 political prisoners behind bars, including 67 adopted as prisoners of conscience by rights group Amnesty, according to the illegal Cuban Commission of Human Rights and Reconciliation.
Castro did not state a number of dissidents which could be involved in a possible exchange for the five Cubans.
Cuban dissidents in Havana criticized the president's offer.
"It's vulgar blackmail because these men should never have been prisoners and that's why they can't be used as bargaining chips," said Laura Pollan, a leader of a group of prisoners' wives.
Castro spoke after a meeting with leftist Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, during a first official trip overseas since formally replacing his ailing brother Fidel in February.
Castro also said that Cuban officials were prepared to speak with Barack Obama "wherever and whenever he decides... in conditions of absolute equality."
After a weekend visit to Venezuela to see his chief ally President Hugo Chavez, Castro on Tuesday and Wednesday attended a meeting of 33 countries making up Latin American and the Caribbean that handed him a diplomatic victory over the United States.
The summit concluded with an appeal to Obama to end the 46-year-old US economic embargo imposed on Cuba, and the "immediate" scrapping of reinforced sanctions brought in by outgoing President George W. Bush over the past five years.
It also challenged Washington's longstanding effort to isolate Havana by formally welcoming Cuba into the Rio Group of Latin American nations.

Date created : 2008-12-19