Cuba frees 1 political prisoner, transfers 6 more
By FERNANDO GONZALEZ
Associated Press Writer
PEDRO BETANCOURT, Cuba -- Cuba on Saturday freed a political prisoner
who is confined to a wheelchair and began transferring six others to
jails closer to their homes, part of a deal with the Roman Catholic
Church and the most important sign yet that the government may be
softening its hardline stance on organized dissent.
Ariel Sigler, one of 75 activists, community organizers and journalists
arrested in a sweeping 2003 crackdown, was released in his hometown of
Pedro Betancourt in the province of Matanzas.
"I feel a mix of happiness and sadness," Sigler told a small group of
reporters in the town, about 160 miles (260 kilometers) east of Havana,
"I'm sad because I can't share this moment with my mother who died five
months ago," he added, "and because more than half of our companions are
still in prison."
Sigler, 44, had been serving a 25-year sentence for treason until being
transferred recently to a hospital. He arrived at his home in a Ministry
of the Interior ambulance.
With the prisoner's release, 52 of those arrested in March 2003 remain
behind bars. The others have been freed on medical parole, forced into
exile or completed their sentences.
Six other prisoners from the so-called "Group of 75" - Hector Fernando
Maceda, Juan Adolfo Fernandez, Omar Moises Ruiz, Efren Fernandez, Jesus
Mustafa Felipe and Juan Carlos Herrera - were being moved to jails
closer to their homes, bringing to 12 the number of imprisoned
dissidents sent to new facilities this month.
"They were taken from their cells early," Elizardo Sanchez, who heads
the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National
Reconciliation, said by phone Saturday.
Sanchez's group puts the total number of political prisoners held in
Cuba at 180, although that list includes some who were convicted of
The Group of 75 was arrested when the world's attention was focused on
the start of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
The human rights situation on the island has remained tense since late
February when another jailed dissident, Juan Zapato Tamayo, died
following a lengthy hunger strike, sparking international condemnation.
Sanchez said freeing Sigler and transferring the others may be part of a
larger governmental effort to rehabilitate its reputation.
"I get the impression that Cuba is now working on generating a media
image," he said.
Saturday's government actions followed negotiations between the
government of President Raul Castro and the office of Havana Cardinal
Jaime Ortega. They come just days before a visit to Cuba by the
Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti. Cuba's
government has not commented on any prison transfers.
Opposition and church leaders had expressed hope the communist
government might make more concessions ahead of the trip, the first to
Cuba by a top Vatican official since Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone,
secretary of state to Pope Benedict XVI, visited the island in February
The Church has suddenly become a major political voice in Cuba,
apparently with the consent of Cuba's government.
In May, Ortega negotiated an end to a ban on marches by a small group of
wives and mothers of the dissidents jailed in 2003 known as the Ladies
The cardinal and another church leader later met with Castro, coming
away convinced the government was prepared to start on a road to better
relations with the opposition. Church officials subsequently announced
the government would allow transfers for prisoners held far from their
homes and give better access to medical care for inmates who need it.
Sigler's release is sure to raise hopes that more inmates could be
freed, though church officials have been careful not to be seen as
publicly pressuring the government for faster action.
Cuba denies it holds any political prisoners and says that those being
held are common criminals and mercenaries sent by Washington to
destabilize the government.