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Dissident ends hunger strike after govt agrees to free political prisoners

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-07-09

Leading Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas ended a 135-day hunger strike on Thursday after the communist government agreed to free 52 political prisoners in a historic deal. Foreign observers have praised the move.

AFP - A leading Cuban dissident on Thursday ended a 135-day hunger strike after the communist government said it would free more than 50 political prisoners, raising hopes for improved international ties.
"This confrontation... has no winners or losers, only Cuba, our nation, has won," Guillermo Farinas said in a statement presented by his supporters through a hospital window in the city of Santa Clara.
The frail psychologist has been in intensive care since suffering a hypoglycemic shock two weeks after beginning his protest at the end of February, a day after another dissident, Orlando Zapata, died following an 85-day hunger strike.
Cuba late Wednesday agreed to free 52 political prisoners in a surprise church-state deal promising the biggest such release since President Raul Castro formally took power in 2008.
Foreign observers lauded the announcement, with some, including the United States and Spain, providing offers of asylum.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the step was overdue but "a positive sign," and many in Europe welcomed the move while calling for the release of all political prisoners.
Farinas had said he would not end his strike until at least five political prisoners were released, having dropped his original demand for 25 to be freed once church mediation was under way.
The first five prisoners, all males aged from 33 to 60, could leave for Spain in the coming days, said the Catholic Church in a statement on Thursday.
Another six were due to be relocated to prisons in their home provinces and those remaining were to be freed within the next three to four months.
The 52 were among 75 dissidents rounded up in 2003 and sentenced to jail terms of six to 28 years.
Talks between Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Castro also involved Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who said the pending move ushered in "a new era."
Moratinos said Castro, during their six-hour meeting, had assured him that the exiles and their relatives would be able to return to visit Cuba and that the property of dissidents who leave the country would not be confiscated -- measures that would imply a change in Cuban policy.
Cuban's state-controlled newspapers on Thursday included the announcement of the planned releases, without saying they were political prisoners.
In an unusual move, Farinas's deteriorating condition had been reported in the official Communist Party newspaper Granma, in what observers considered was an attempt to defuse international criticism should he die.
US officials have said the release of political prisoners is a necessary step before the two governments can improve their relations, with a decades-long US trade embargo still in place.
US President Barack Obama's administration has lifted travel and money transfer restrictions on Cuban-Americans with relatives in Cuba, without going further toward normalizing ties.
Asked if the United States would consider accepting freed prisoners headed for Spain, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said: "Absolutely."
Moratinos has said his visit, if a success, could help toward easing the European Union's common position on Cuba, which has, since 1996, conditioned better relations on progress in human rights.
An EU spokesman said the move would be taken into account at a September meeting on whether to improve ties with Cuba.
The European Union hoped the church-government talks "will lead to the release of all political prisoners," EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said in a separate statement.
The Church began a dialogue with Havana on May 19. As a result of the talks, one prisoner has been released and another 12 were transferred to facilities closer to their families.
The Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission estimates there are 167 political prisoners in the nation of more than 11 million people.
US-based Human Rights Watch welcomed the promised releases but warned that more political prisoners could be put in jail.
"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 HRW Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco in a statement.

Date created : 2010-07-09