Mar 8, 2005 ó By Anthony Boadle
HAVANA (Reuters) - The highest ranking European official to visit Cuba since a diplomatic dispute over human rights erupted in 2003 said on Tuesday he urged the government to free all political prisoners and stop harassing dissidents.
British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell, responsible for Latin America and human rights, said he had frank talks with members of President Fidel Castro’s communist government on the need to improve its rights record as part of a new policy of engagement with Cuba.
“I have raised my concerns directly about the need to release all political prisoners within Cuba, especially the 75 that were imprisoned following the crackdown on the peaceful opposition in March 2003,” Rammell said at a news conference shortly before his departure.
Cuba last year released 14 of the jailed dissidents, leading to the temporary lifting of European Union diplomatic sanctions and a thaw in relations.
But Rammell said: “We want to see all of them released.”
“I have urged Cuban ministers to accept international access to their prisons, to end the harassment of individuals by the state and take steps toward the abolition of the death penalty,” he added.
Rammell met on Monday with Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque for two hours without reaching an agreement.
In the final hours of his two-day visit, the British official met with five leading Cuban dissidents who thanked the EU for pressing for the release of all jailed opponents, though some said they wished the 25-nation bloc had kept sanctions in place.
These included inviting dissidents to EU national day receptions and the suspension of high-level visits to Cuba.
The measures were adopted in June 2003 to protest the crackdown on dissent and the summary execution of three men who hijacked a ferry in a failed bid to leave for the United States.
Cuba froze its relations with EU embassies in Havana and shunned European diplomats in a 19-month dispute dubbed the “cocktail war” that ended last month.