January 8, 2015 / 3:19 PM / 3 years ago

Cuba frees eight more political prisoners, dissidents say

A man walks near a sign with an image of Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana December 19, 2014.Stringer

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba has freed eight more detainees, dissidents said on Thursday, as Havana begins to release 53 people the United States considers political prisoners as part of an agreement aimed at ending decades of hostility between the two nations.

Including three detainees released on Wednesday, 11 prisoners have been liberated over the past 24 hours, political opposition groups on the communist-led island said. All but three of them are members of the dissident Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU).

Havana's commitment to free the 53 prisoners was a major part of a historic deal announced last month under which the two governments agreed to renew diplomatic relations after more than 50 years.

Like the detainees released on Wednesday, those freed on Thursday had been accused of relatively minor offenses.

The UNPACU detainees freed on Thursday were Ernesto Riveri Gascon, Lazaro Romero Hurtado, Emilio Plana Robert, Yohannes Arce Sarmientos and Yordenis Mendoza Cobas, UNPACU said.

Romero was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to four years behind bars on charges including making a public disturbance and threats, apparently during a confrontation with police. Riveri was given two years on the same charges.

Plana was detained in 2012 and given a three-and-a-half-year term for his activities with the opposition, dissidents said. Arce had been awaiting sentencing after being arrested last year on similar allegations while Mendoza was detained last year and given a three-year prison term, dissidents said.

Another detainee freed on Thursday was named by dissidents as Jose Manuel Rodriguez Navarro. They said he was detained in 2013 and sentenced to four years in prison, allegedly for writing letters denouncing Cuba's government.

"CAN'T BELIEVE IT"

The latest to be released were Haydee Gallardo and her husband, Angel Figueredo. Gallardo, a member of the "Ladies in White" dissident group, was detained along with her spouse last year after shouting anti-government slogans at a rally.

"I still can't believe it. I didn't expect it," Gallardo told Reuters by telephone. "I don't have words to say how happy I feel to be back with my family, my kids, and my husband."

Dissident groups said most of those freed over the last 24 hours were released on condition that they report regularly to the authorities.

Cuba's government does not comment on police actions involving detentions, and it has said nothing about this week's releases. It typically describes dissidents as being in the pay of the United States.

Elizardo Sanchez, president of the dissident Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which monitors such detentions, said more releases were expected on Thursday and over the coming days.

"That could indicate the start of the process ... under which around 50 Cuban political prisoners would be released from custody," Sanchez said in a statement.

Jose Daniel Ferrer, executive secretary of UNPACU, said 35 members of his organization remained in custody.

All 11 of those freed so far appear on an informal list drawn up by dissidents, but it is not known if they were on the official list of 53.

Details about the political prisoners who will be freed have been withheld by both governments, providing ammunition for Republican congressional opponents and other hardline critics of the U.S. policy shift.

One U.S. congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters on Wednesday Cuba was resisting the release of some prisoners on the list. A White House official denied that, saying the U.S. government fully expected all 53 to be freed.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, will visit Havana for Jan. 21-22 talks with Cuban officials on migration and the normalization of diplomatic ties.

Reporting by Daniel Wallis and Rosa Tania Valdes; Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Bernadette Baum, James Dalgleish and Leslie Adler

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