By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press July 12, 2010
HAVANA – Cuba freed seven political prisoners on Monday and sent them and
their families to exile in Spain — the start of a promised mass liberation
of dissidents that once seemed unthinkable.
Omar Ruiz, who had been serving a 12-year sentence for treason, said he
and six other former inmates were driven in a van to Havana's Jose Marti
International airport, where they were reunited with relatives in a
special waiting room. All were then escorted to an Air Europa flight bound
"We are, at this moment, walking to the plane," Ruiz told The Associated
Press on his cell phone. "They brought us through the back of the
Ruiz added, however, that "they're watching us."
"That's why I won't consider myself free until I arrive in Spain," he said.
The government of Raul Castro has pledged to free 52 Cubans who
international human rights group say were jailed for their political
beliefs. That process is expected to take three or four months and is part
of a landmark deal last week between Cuban authorities and the island's
Roman Catholic Church that was brokered by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel
Spanish authorities have said that once the Cubans arrive, they will not
be required to stay in Spain and will be free to head elsewhere.
The church says another 13 opposition activists and dissidents behind bars
will go free soon. It was not known if subsequently released prisoners
will be allowed to stay in Cuba or will be forced to go to another
country. Both the U.S. and Chile have offered to grant them asylum, in
addition to Spain.
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and
National Reconciliation, said at least three prisoners asked Cardinal
Jaime Ortega to leave them off the list of those headed to Spain because
they want to remain in Cuba.
In the hours before the group of seven were escorted from prison to the
airport, their relatives had been told to prepare to leave the island for
good at a moment's notice.
"Sunday they performed medical checkups, did paperwork for the passports
and told us to be ready starting today," said Irene Viera, wife of
community organizer Julio Cesar Galvez, who had been serving a 15-year
"I'm very nervous about all of this," she said.
One relative, the sister of another political prisoner, began preparing
for life outside Cuba by heading to the beauty parlor.
All of those Cuba has promised to free were among 75 opposition activists
arrested in a sweeping state crackdown on dissent in March 2003, when the
world's attention was focused on the start of the war in Iraq.
Cuba had accused them of taking money from Washington to destabilize the
island's communist government — charges both those imprisoned and U.S.
officials have denied. Of those, 23 had been previously freed, meaning
that if Cuba's deal with the church holds, their numbers behind bars will
fall to zero.
Before Monday's releases, Sanchez's commission said Cuba now holds 167
political prisoners — the lowest total since Fidel Castro took power on
New Year's Day 1959. If the government keeps its promise, that total would
drop by nearly a third to 115 and all but one of the inmates considered
"prisoners of conscience" by Amnesty International and other human rights
groups will have been released.
The single exception would be Rolando Jimenez, who Sanchez identified as a
police official but Amnesty International says is a lawyer. He was
arrested in April 2003 and is serving a 12-year sentence for disrespecting
authority and "revealing secrets about state security police" after he
publicly pledged support for the political prisoners arrested the previous
Some of the other prisoners still considered held for political reasons by
Sanchez's commission were convicted of violent acts — including planting
bombs in hotels in Havana that killed an Italian tourist in the 1990s.
The island's government says it holds no political prisoners and that all
countries have the right to jail traitors. Authorities refuse to recognize
Sanchez's independent, Havana-based commission but largely allow it to
Associated Press Writers Andrea Rodriguez in Havana and Ciaran Giles in
Madrid contributed to this report.