Monday, February 2, 2009

Politicaql Prisoners Reduced by One-third

Reported number of Cuban political prisoners dips

Monday, February 02, 2009
By ANITA SNOW, Associated Press Writer

HAVANA — The number of political prisoners held in Cuba continues to fall gradually, but brief detentions of activists have soared under President Raul Castro's rule, with more than 1,500 documented last year, the island's leading independent rights group said Monday.

The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation said that it documented 205 political prisoners as of Jan. 30, down from 234 in early 2008. Twelve of the 205 have been freed on medical parole but continue to serve their sentences and can be returned to prison for parole violations.

The number of political prisoners has dropped by a third since Castro took assumed power from his ailing elder brother Fidel in July 2006, when the commission counted 316 prisoners.

"It is true that in 2008, as well as in the previous two years, the government has stopped applying long prison terms as it did in 2003," commission head Elizardo Sanchez wrote in the twice-yearly report, referring to a crackdown that put 75 critics behind bars.

But Sanchez said Raul Castro's government has increased "low-intensity political and social repression in the form of hundreds of short-term arbitrary detentions."

Castro said last month he'd be willing to send the island's political prisoners and their families to the United States in exchange for the freedom of five Cubans serving long terms in U.S. prisons on espionage charges.

Even if the U.S. agrees, Cuba is unlikely to free all of those on the commission's list, which includes some people convicted of violent acts, such as two Salvadorans sentenced to death for Havana hotel bombings that killed an Italian tourist.

Amnesty International has identified only 66 of those on the commission's list as prisoners of conscience, including 10 who have since been paroled.

President Barack Obama has never discussed a possible prisoner exchange
and has said he will maintain a long-standing trade embargo against the island until Cuba shows "significant steps toward democracy," starting with freedom for political prisoners.

But Obama also has promised to lift all restrictions on family travel and cash remittances to Cuba, and has said he is willing to talk directly with Raul Castro.

The commission headed by Sanchez is funded by international rights organizations and it operates without government approval. The group is now largely tolerated, but Sanchez spent eight years in prison for his human rights work during the 1980s and early 1990s.

The commission gets its information from prisoners' relatives or inmates themselves and its reports are regularly used by international groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Cuban officials say they do not hold any political prisoners and dismiss dissidents as "mercenaries" who take money from the U.S. government to destabilize the island's communist system. Officials maintain they respect human rights more than those in most countries, given the free education and health care and other subsidized services their system provides.