Paul Haven | Canadian Press

The wives and mothers of Cuba’s most prominent political prisoners marched through the leafy streets of the capital Sunday, demanding the government honor an agreement to release their loved ones by the end of the day — or face protests and international condemnation.

With the deadline approaching and no word on the men’s fate, a standoff between President Raul Castro and the island’s small but vocal opposition community appeared imminent. One dissident vowed to start a hunger strike if the 13 prisoners are not in their homes by Monday, and a human rights leader warned the government was playing with fire.

“To not release them would be fatal to the promise given to the Church, and a fraud against the international community,” said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, the only human rights group tolerated on the island.

Castro agreed following a meeting with Roman Catholic Cardinal Jamie Ortega to release 52 prisoners of conscience held since a 2003 crackdown on peaceful dissent.

The July 7 deal called for all the prisoners to be free in three to four months, a period that ends at midnight Sunday.

“It would be strange” if the men are not released, said Father Jose Felix Perez, who co-ordinates Cuba’s Catholic Bishops Conference and usually celebrates Mass for the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, the dissident group made up of family members of the 2003 prisoners. “It is not what we thought would happen.”

Cuban officials have declined to comment on the deadline.

At first, the government moved swiftly to make good on the deal, sending 39 prisoners into exile in Spain, along with their families. Authorities even agreed to release another 14 prisoners who were in jail for violent — but politically motivated — crimes. They too were sent to Spain, though the agreement struck with the Church made no mention of exile being a condition for release.

But progress has ground to a halt recently.

The remaining 13 prisoners of conscience have refused to leave the island, a direct challenge to the government. Some say they will continue their fight for democratic political change the moment they leave jail.

As the hours ticked down Sunday, a confrontation appeared to be looming.

“We won’t stop fighting, whether they release them or not,” said Laura Pollan, a Damas leader, following a quiet protest by 30 women Sunday on Havana’s grand Fifth Avenue thoroughfare. Her husband, Hector Maseda, 67, is serving a 20-year term for treason and other crimes.

Pollan said if the government fails to release the men, “it will show that their word has no value, and that they cannot be believed.”

“But we will wait until midnight to see what happens,” she added.

Pollan said the group would step up its protests if the government breaks its word, though she gave no details.

Guillermo Farinas, a dissident who won Europe’s Sakharov human rights prize in October after staging a 134-day hunger strike in support of the prisoners, has told The Associated Press he will stop eating Monday if the remaining dissidents are not in their homes.

That would likely spark deep criticism of Cuba in European capitals, and could set back efforts to improve ties with the continent that have been frayed since the 2003 arrests.

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