Jeff Franks and Rosa Tania Valdes
June 1, 2010 (Reuters) - The Cuban government began moving political prisoners to jails closer to their homes on Tuesday in a modest humanitarian gesture promised in recent talks with the leader of Cuba's Catholic Church, human rights advocates and church officials said. Family members said they hoped the transfers were a first step toward freedom for some of the island's 190 imprisoned dissidents. The Catholic Church said in a statement that six men, who were among 75 government opponents jailed in a 2003 crackdown, were in the process of being transferred to prisons nearer their families in various Cuban cities. Another move was confirmed by the prisoner's family, bringing the known total to seven so far. Families of the jailed dissidents had complained that it was difficult to visit them in distant prisons.
It was not known how many prisoners would be moved, but Elizardo Sanchez of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights said as many as 17 have been in jails far from home.
President Raul Castro promised the moves in a May 19 meeting with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, in what was seen as a concession ahead of a mid-June visit by Vatican foreign minister Dominique Mamberti. Catholic officials said Castro also pledged that ailing prisoners would be moved to hospitals. At least 26 prisoners are said by human rights advocates to be in ill health.
Some reports said Castro indicated an unknown number of prisoners may be released, but the government has only confirmed that he met with Ortega. Julia Nunez told Reuters she had received word that her husband, Adolfo Fernandez, was among those being moved to a Havana prison from his current jail in the central city of Ciego de Avila.
LIGHT AT END OF TUNNEL
"I am very happy. It's a small light at the end of the tunnel," she said. Berta Soler, a leader in the "Ladies in White" dissident group whose husbands and sons were jailed in the 2003 crackdown, said the moves were a hopeful sign. "This is a window, a door that is opening," said Soler, whose husband, Angel Moya Acosta, is serving a 20-year sentence. "I think some of the most ill may be released." More than 50 of the 75 people jailed in 2003 remain behind bars. Sanchez downplayed the moves, saying they were "irrelevant" because they were simply "changing the prisoners from one jail to another." He said only the freeing of all Cuban political prisoners would be considered a "significant" step forward. But dissident Guillermo Farinas, now in the 98th day of a hunger strike seeking the release of the 26 ailing political prisoners, called the government's action "laudable." He said if the government releases 10 or 12 of the sick prisoners, he might call off his fast, which has prompted international criticism of Cuba's human rights record.
Farinas, who is receiving liquids intravenously in a hospital, has refused to eat or drink since the February death of imprisoned hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who demanded better prison conditions and whose demise also brought condemnation of Cuba. The government concession to dissidents was the second brokered in recent weeks by the church, whose influence has been restricted since the 1959 revolution that transformed Cuba into a communist state.
Officials tried last month to stop the Ladies in White from making the weekly protest marches they have staged for seven years, bringing in pro-government mobs to harass them for hours.
But they allowed the marches to go on after Ortega intervened. Cuban leaders say dissidents are mercenaries working to undermine the government.