By Patricia Grogg
Only seven prisoners convicted of political crimes are among the nearly 3,000 inmates pardoned by the government of Raúl Castro. Most of the prisoners have reportedly already been released.
Cuba’s Official Gazette published on Wednesday Dec. 28 the decree signed by President Castro and the names of the 2,991 prisoners granted early release. The mass pardon was announced by the government on Friday Dec. 23, at the end of a meeting of the Cuban parliament.
Human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez told IPS that the process began to be implemented on Dec. 24, just hours after Castro’s announcement. “The first beneficiaries of the measure began to leave the prisons on Dec. 25,” he said.
In statements on Thursday Dec. 29 Sánchez confirmed that Alexis Ramírez and Modesto Martínez had been released the day before. The two men were serving sentences for sabotaging and hijacking a small airplane to defect. “They bring to a total of seven the pardoned political prisoners,” the dissident said.
In the Dec. 23 decree, the president of the supreme court and the ministers of the interior and justice were given 48 hours to carry out their respective parts.
Castro also announced that the government would grant early release to 86 foreign nationals from 25 countries, including 13 women, convicted of committing crimes in Cuba, under the condition that the governments of their respective countries agree to their repatriation.
The names of the foreign inmates have not been published, although Cuban authorities clarified from the start that they did not include Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state.”
Cuban authorities say Gross was providing sophisticated communication technology to dissident groups, while the U.S. government claimed his work mainly involved distributing laptops and satellite phone equipment to the Jewish community in Cuba.
A total of 11 U.S. citizens are serving sentences in Cuba, for different crimes. Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba, confirmed to IPS that none of the U.S. nationals have been freed so far.
On Saturday Dec. 24, the U.S. State Department said it was “deeply disappointed” that Gross was not on the list of the prisoners to be released.
Washington says no normalisation of relations will be possible until he is set free.
Havana, meanwhile, continues to demand the release and repatriation of the Cuban Five, a group of Cuban agents convicted of spying and given lengthy jail terms in the U.S. in 2001.
In this country the Cuban Five are hailed as heroes in the fight against terrorism, because they had infiltrated and were monitoring violent anti-Castro Cuban exile groups in Miami, Florida.
At the end of the last annual session of parliament on Friday Dec. 23, Castro said that in the case of the foreign nationals to be released, the necessary information would be provided through diplomatic channels “shortly”. There are fears that this procedure will delay the process.
The La Jornada newspaper of Mexico reported Thursday that 23 Mexicans are in prison in Cuba. The Mexican embassy in Havana had not yet received any communication from the government with regard to the release of any Mexican nationals.
With respect to the early release of Cuban prisoners, the president explained that the decree favoured women, people with health problems, prisoners over the age of 60, and young people who have made an effort to receive education and better themselves in prison, thus improving their chances of social reinsertion.
With “rare exceptions,” he said, people serving sentences for espionage, terrorism, murder, drug trafficking, pederasty with violence, rape, corruption of minors, and home burglary with forced entry were not included on the list.
“But some people convicted of crimes against state security, who have served a large part of their sentences with good behaviour, will be released,” said Castro, who called the pardons “one more show of the generosity and strength of the revolution.”
Besides age and health, the process took into account the characteristics of the crimes committed, and the good behaviour of inmates, many of whom have completed a large part of their sentences.
The mass pardon also responded to requests from family members of inmates and different religious institutions, and was a special gesture ahead of Pope Benedict’s planned visit to Cuba, and for the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the statue of Our Lady of Charity, the “mother and patron saint” of Cuba
An even larger mass pardon occurred when some 3,600 inmates were released on Nov. 20-21, 1978, after meetings between representatives of the Cuban exile community and Cuban authorities. And 299 prisoners were released on the occasion of Pope John Paul’s visit in 1998.
Meanwhile, humanitarian talks between the Catholic Church and the government brought about the release, in 2010 and early this year, of more than 100 political prisoners, who mainly went into exile to Spain and other countries.
That process completed the release of the group of 75 dissidents sentenced to lengthy prison terms in 2003 on charges of conspiring with Washington to subvert the government. The authorities did not consider them “political prisoners” but “counterrevolutionaries” working to undermine national security.