Sun, Sep 13, 2015 - Page 7 News List

US, Cuban officials set agenda for talks, eye full diplomacy

NORMALIZING:Issues to be discussed include compensation for economic and human damages, and the lifting of a five-decade-old US embargo on trade

AP, HAVANA

Cuba on Friday announced that it is releasing 3,522 prisoners ahead of next week’s visit by Pope Francis, the third time Cuba has granted inmates freedom before a papal trip.

Cuba’s Council of State announced in state media that the prisoners to be freed include a mix of women, people younger than 20 years old, inmates suffering from illnesses and people whose terms were coming to an end next year.

The government are not to release people convicted of serious crimes, such as murder, child sexual abuse or violations of state security. The final category is often applied to people considered political prisoners by Cuban and international human rights groups.

Also excluded from pardon were those convicted of illegally killing government cattle, a crime that often bears heavy punishment in Cuba, which suffers from widespread shortages of milk and meat, particularly beef.

The government said the group includes some foreigners whose home nations have agreed to repatriate them.

A Vatican spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Cuba’s Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed “profound satisfaction” with the decision.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, said in an interview on Cuban television last week that he had given the government a list of prisoners for possible pardon ahead of the pope’s, which is scheduled to run from Saturday through Sept. 22, ahead of a trip to the US.

He said many were being held for economic crimes, such as corruption or stealing resources from the state, both widespread problems in a nation where most workers hold state jobs bringing in between US$20 and US$30 per month.

The names of the prisoners were published in an order signed by Cuban President Raul Castro in the nation’s government gazette. The order described the pardons as a “humane and sovereign act.” State media on Friday morning said that the prisoners would be released over the following 72 hours.

Former Cuban president Fidel Castro released more than 3,000 prisoners described as “counterrevolutionaries” in 1978 and 1979. His brother and successor released 53 this year as part of the declaration of detente with the US. Rights groups said about 70 political prisoners remain in the nation.

Despite the apparent exclusion of political prisoners from Friday’s pardon, the non-governmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a moderate opposition group that monitors the treatment of dissidents in the nation, expressed satisfaction with the announcement.

“We are happy because of what it means for the families and because conditions in Cuban prisons are not good,” commission member Gerardo Sanchez said.

State media in 2012 said that Cuba had 57,337 prisoners, although more than 25,000 enjoy some freedoms such as house arrest.

Raul Castro released more than 2,900 prisoners in March 2012 before the visit of former pope Benedict. Fidel Castro released about 300 when former pope John Paul II visited in 1998.

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