Paul Haven | AP
The Roman Catholic Church announced Tuesday that the Cuban government would release the last two political prisoners held since 2003, a landmark decision that came the same day Fidel Castro announced he had stepped down as head of the island’s Communist Party.
The decision will clear Cuban jails of the last of 75 prominent intellectuals, opposition leaders and activists whose imprisonment on charges including treason has long soured relations with the outside world.
The last two men to be released are Felix Navarro and Jose Daniel Ferrer, activists who had each been sentenced to 25 years in jail.
Cuba has been releasing the men gradually since under an agreement President Raul Castro and Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega reached in July.
Most have accepted a deal to fly into exile in Spain, along with their families. But the releases bogged down in recent months because a dozen dissidents refused to leave their homeland.
Finally, the government began to release them, too, allowing them to return to their homes.
Navarro and Ferrer are the last inmates considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, though human rights activists contend there are others in jail for political reasons.
Many of them do not qualify for the designation of prisoner of conscience because they were sentenced for violent — but politically motivate — acts, like hijacking and assault.
Cuba’s communist government has freed dozens of such inmates — more than 60 in all — even though that wasn’t part of the agreement with the church. In addition to Navarro and Ferrer, the church announced that the government would free 11 other prisoners who had accepted a deal to fly into exile in Spain, along with their families.
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Mr. Ferrer is now Executive Secretary of the Union Patriotica de Cuba human rights organization.