International rights groups welcomed Cuba's surprise release of three dissidents jailed last year in a broad crackdown, and called on President Fidel Castro's government to free another 65 still behind bars.
The three men were freed unexpectedly early Monday for health reasons, according to friends, relatives and local rights activists, sparking hopes for additional releases in the coming days.
"Cuba's release of these political prisoners is a welcome move, but many more remain incarcerated in violation of their fundamental rights," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "We call on the Cuban authorities to release all of them."
Those freed on parole included economics writer Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who was hospitalized behind bars for months with a liver ailment. Espinosa Chepe's cause has become well known among some rights groups outside Cuba.
"I'm feeling happy now," Espinosa Chepe told reporters at his Havana home, noting that Monday was his 64th birthday. "I had been really pessimistic. I didn't think I was going to be let out."
Also freed early Monday for health reasons were dissidents Marcelo Lopez and Margarito Broche. Lopez has a neurological disorder, and Broche suffered a heart attack behind bars in August.
The latest releases bring to 10 the number of dissidents in the original group of 75 who have since been freed after being sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years in April last year. All were released for medical reasons.
They were charged with working with the US government to undermine Castro's socialist system, something the dissidents and US officials denied.
Vivanco regretted that the three men released on Monday were freed on parole, rather than unconditionally.
"By granting them parole only, the Cuban government leaves open the possibility of returning the dissidents to prison to serve out their sentences in the future," Vivanco said. "It's a way of intimidating them from exercising their fundamental rights."
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it was gladdened by the release of Espionsa Chepe, one of more than two dozen independent Cuban journalists held behind bars on the island.
"Their only offense was doing their jobs," said the committee's Executive Director Ann Cooper.
After his release, Espinosa Chepe spoke from his book-filled living room, where a small Christmas tree sat atop a refrigerator in the corner. Despite the difficulties suffered in jail, Espinosa Chepe said did not want to leave Cuba.
"I feel Cuban and I want to die in my own country," he said.