By David Usborne | Independent.co.uk
Cuba appears to have taken a step towards blunting international criticism of repression on the island with the release of seven political prisoners, including the well-known dissident leader Jorge Luis Garcia Perez. He had served 17 years in jail and wrote a book from his cell about his imprisonment. Cuban opposition and human rights groups confirmed that Mr Perez, more widely known as Antunez, was freed on Sunday.
On Tuesday, the authorities released another six men, whose arrests in 2005 led to the adoption of sanctions by the European Union, which have since been lifted temporarily.
The releases come ahead of a high-level meeting between Cuba and Spain at which Havana will seek the permanent end of EU sanctions. The six freed men are Lazaro Alonso Roman, Manuel Perez Soria, Elio Enrique Chavez Ramon, Jose Diaz Silva, Emilio Leyva Perez and Dulian Ramirez Ballester.
While buoyed by the releases, opposition groups in Havana warned against over-interpreting their significance, noting that most had served their full terms.
They contrasted the releases with the recent sentencing of two other men at closed trials, one for a term of 12 years for writing anti-government graffiti on public buildings, distributing critical literature and exposing state secrets.
None of those freed this week were among the 75 journalists and critics arrested in a crackdown in March 2003 that sparked worldwide condemnation of Havana. Of those, 16 have been freed but only for medical reasons.
“We don’t see anything special in this,” said Elizardo Sanchez of the Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a group in Havana barely tolerated by the regime. Of Mr Perez, he added: “We are happy for his release, but he is coming into the streets of a country under a government that doesn’t respect any civil, political and economic rights.”
Fathoming the true intentions of the Cuban government remains difficult with Raul Castro in control. He took over last July after his brother Fidel, founder of the revolution, had what appears to have been botched intestinal surgery.
Months later the true condition of Fidel remains obscured in mystery. Pictures were released of a more robust looking Fidel in a tracksuit during a meeting with Chinese government officials last Friday. It has since emerged that the meeting took place inside a Havana hospital.
Observers in Washington believe that it is unlikely that he will return to power given the length of his illness. “An 80-year-old man who ... still wears a tracksuit when he meets with foreign dignitaries suggests this is an extremely serious illness still,” one official said.
According to human rights and opposition groups there are nearly 300 dissidents imprisoned in Cuba for political reasons. The regime continues to assert that there are no political prisoners behind bars except for those it considers counter-revolutionary mercenaries in the pay of the United States.
Human rights groups are meanwhile continuing to highlight the cases of two men recently sentenced.
One, Rolando Jimenez, is reported to have been given a 12-year prison term last weekend at a closed trial, from which his family was barred. He did not have a defence lawyer and has already spent four years in prison.
Earlier this month, an independent journalist, Oscar Sanchez, was reportedly sentenced to four years in prison after being charged with alleged, “social dangerousness”.
Mr Sanchez had been writing about dissidents in Cuba and was apparently arrested on 13 April and tried the same day.
JORGE LUIS GARCIA PEREZ, 42
One of Cuba’s best known political prisoners, he served 17 years and 34 days in prison after being convicted of “verbal enemy propaganda”, “attempted sabotage”, including setting fire to sugar cane fields, and failing to respect the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. Perez, more widely known as Antunez, was among prisoners that Pope John II petitioned the regime to release before a 1998 visit to Cuba.
MANUEL PEREZ SORIA, 55
On his release, he said he had been arrested and imprisoned for so-called “public disorder” during an anti-government protest rally in Havana in July 2005. Defiant still, he insisted: “I am an opponent of this government and my life is fully dedicated to this, because I am on the right side. This country is screaming for economic, political and social changes.”
ROLANDO JIMENEZ, 36
The dissident lawyer was jailed without charge four years ago. In 2004 Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience. Accused of writing anti-government slogans, including “Down With Castro”, on public buildings and revealing state secrets, he was sentenced to 12 years at a closed trial last weekend where he was barred from defending himself.
Status: in prison
OSCAR SANCHEZ MADAN, 44
An independent journalist who wrote for a Miami-based website, CubaNet, was arrested at his home on 13 April and convicted the same day at a closed trial on the vague charge of “social dangerousness”. He had been writing articles on the hardships faced by the people of Cuba and about the work of dissidents. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
Status: in prison