The Associated Press
Hector Palacios, a well-known Cuban dissident jailed in a government crackdown on the opposition three years ago, was released from prison on Wednesday for health reasons.
Palacios told journalists he received the news “with happiness, to be able to be in my house.”
The 65-year-old leader of an outlawed opposition group said although he felt physically “destroyed,” he remained “morally strong” in his opposition to the Cuban government.
It was the first high-profile release of a political prisoner since 80-year-old leader Fidel Castro announced in late July that he had undergone surgery for intestinal bleeding and provisionally ceded his powers to his brother Raul Castro.
Palacios, who suffers from heart and respiratory problems, said he was released early from a 25-year sentence for medical reasons, not as a goodwill gesture from the government.
Leading democracy activist Oswaldo Paya, among well-wishers who rushed to greet Palacios at his home, called his colleague’s early release “an act of justice.”
“They should release all of them,” added Paya, the key promoter of the Varela Project campaign to gather signatures demanding a referendum on civil rights such as freedom of speech and business ownership.
“This is good news, but we need 300 more good stories,” said veteran rights activist Elizardo Sanchez, referring to the more than 300 political prisoners he says are still held on the island.
Sanchez is among Cuba’s most veteran activists and his group’s summary of political prisoners is used by numerous international human rights groups.
Palacios’ wife Gisela Delgado is a member of the Ladies in White, a group of women who hold a weekly silent march to demand the release of relatives imprisoned for political reasons.
Palacios was among 75 dissidents rounded up in March 2003 on charges they were U.S. mercenaries working to undermine Cuba’s communist system — accusations the activists and Washington denied. All 75 were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years.
The crackdown was protested by governments and rights organizations the world over.
With Palacios, 16 of the original 75 have now been released early for health reasons. Several, including writers Raul Rivero and Manuel Vazquez Portal, have left the country.
The 15th in the group to be freed was Mario Enrique Mayo Hernandez, an activist from the central-eastern province of Camaguey, who was released in December 2005.
The Cuban government says it holds no prisoners of conscience, only common criminals, and typically characterizes political opponents as mercenaries and traitors.
In a human rights report in June, the Foreign Ministry said those arrested in the 2003 crackdown were “mercenaries” who were “tried and sanctioned by competent and independent courts in accordance with the laws adopted by their parliament.”