HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba’s most prominent dissidents say they have been kept in the dark by U.S. officials over a list of 53 political prisoners who will be released from jail as part of a deal to end decades of hostility between the United States and Cuba.
For years, dissident leaders have told the United States which opponents of Cuba’s communist government were being jailed or harassed, but they say they were not consulted when the list of prisoners to be freed was drawn up or even told who is on it.
The lack of information has stoked concern and frustration among the dissidents, who worry that the secret list is flawed and that genuine political prisoners who should be on it will be left to languish.
“We’re concerned because we don’t agree with the silence, because we have a right to know who they are. Who are they?” said Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White dissident group, which marches in Havana on Sundays to demand the release of prisoners.
“There are not just 53 political prisoners, there are more, and we are concerned that the U.S. list might have common criminals on it,” she told Reuters in Havana.
U.S. officials have so far been tight-lipped about how the list of 53 was assembled and who was consulted inside Cuba. It also is not clear if some prisoners were kept off the list because the Cuban government refused to release them.
A U.S. official said on Saturday that Washington had asked Cuba to release a specific group of people jailed on charges related to their political activities, but declined to answer further questions.
Neither the U.S. nor the Cuban governments have said when the prisoners would be released. Cuba declined to comment on why more details have not been publicly released.
The dissident Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which keeps track of activists in the different opposition groups, counted in June a total of 114 political prisoners, although the number includes 12 on parole after being released plus several others who have since been freed.
Elizardo Sanchez, the group’s veteran leader, says at least 80 peaceful dissidents are on the list, including some whose only crime was to demonstrate or paint anti-government signs.
Others include soldiers who deserted, former government officials, people who tried to hijack an airplane to the United States and eight militants jailed for entering Cuba from the United States and trying to start insurrections.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations on Dec. 17, saying he would restore diplomatic ties broken more than five decades ago and begin to unravel economic sanctions that were aimed at forcing the communists from power.
Under the deal, three Cuban spies were freed from U.S. jails while Cuba released a U.S. aid contractor and a Cuban who spied for Washington. Cuba also agreed to free the 53 people who U.S. officials described as political prisoners.
Reuters spoke with six of the most influential dissident leaders in Cuba - Sanchez and Soler as well as Jose Daniel Ferrer, Martha Beatriz Roque, Guillermo Farinas and Antonio Rodiles. All said U.S. officials have been in contact with them but have given them no information about the 53 and that no one has been freed since the deal was announced.
Rodiles, leader of Por Otra Cuba (For Another Cuba), said it was a “huge mistake” for Obama not to extract more concessions from Cuba, and he was concerned that Cuba was allowed to impose secrecy over which prisoners would be freed and when.
“There are more than 53. They are accepting the regime’s conditions. The regime is setting too many conditions and they are accepting them,” Rodiles said.
Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) dissident group, said he has been in contact with worried relatives and that some inmates have called from prison to see if they are likely to be released.
Cuba says it has no political prisoners but, announcing the deal with the United States, President Raul Castro said his government would be releasing some inmates who were of interest to the United States. It has said nothing else about them since.
Cuba denounces the dissidents as mercenaries working for the United States in a campaign against Cuba, and the opposition groups have limited popular support.
While Cuba has faced pressure on its human rights record over the years, none of those currently in prison have drawn significant interest internationally.
Within Cuba, one who has generated popular interest is hip-hop artist Angel Yunier Remon, alias “The Critic,” who had actively demonstrated against the government.
He has been in prison since his arrest in March 2013 after a confrontation with police and pro-government demonstrators. Prosecutors are seeking an eight-year prison sentence, Sanchez’s commission says.
The father of a former Cuban counter-intelligence agent said he hoped his son would be freed after serving 16 years of a 30-year sentence for trying to pass secrets to U.S. officials. “I ask Obama to publish the names so there is clarity in what is going on,” said Raul Borges, the father of Ernesto Borges. “He was doing a job for the United States and in support of the American people.”
One of the Ladies in White and two men who work in support of the group were freed on Dec. 9, eight days before the joint U.S.-Cuban announcement. It was unclear if they were counted as part of the 53.
They had spent nearly three years in jail waiting for trial on murder and public disorder charges, even though they were never told who the victim was, said one of the men, Ramon Munoz.
Reporting by Daniel Trotta, Rosa Tania Valdés and Nelson Acosta in Havana and Julia Edwards in Honolulu; Editing by Kieran Murray