January 9, 2015 / 11:58 AM / in 3 years

Cuba dissidents say 38 activists freed as part of deal with U.S.

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba has freed 38 opposition activists from prison over the past two days, including a popular hip-hop artist, as part of a deal to improve relations with the United States, dissident groups said on Friday.

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

The dissident Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) said 29 of its members were among those released, and that most had been warned by the communist government they would be sent back to prison if they continued their opposition activities.

“Our freed prisoners are committed to continue fighting for the democratic Cuba which we all want,” UNPACU’s leader Jose Daniel Ferrer said in a statement.

“The UNPACU activists have left prison with more energy, force and motivation than they had when they were jailed.”

Cuba’s commitment to free 53 prisoners was a key part of the historic deal announced on Dec. 17 under which the Cuban and U.S. governments agreed to renew diplomatic relations after more than 50 years of hostilities.

Almost all of those freed so far appear on an informal list of more than 100 political prisoners drawn up several months ago by dissidents, but it is not known if they were all on the list of 53 that the United States negotiated with Cuba.

Details about who will be freed have been withheld by both governments, providing ammunition for U.S. opponents of the detente, who have complained that President Barack Obama has not pushed Cuba hard enough on human rights and that the government in Havana was not living up to its side of the bargain.

The White House hailed the “substantial and ongoing” releases. “So good to see people reunited with their families,” senior White House official Ben Rhodes said on Twitter.

‘VERY GOOD NEWS’

Elizardo Sanchez, founder of the dissident Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which monitors detentions, said the releases to date were “very good news,” but that activists remained concerned about those still behind bars.

“We don’t know what the future holds for those former Cuban government officials and senior ex-military people, as well the Cuban-Americans who are still in prison,” Sanchez told Reuters.

Several Cuban exiles from Miami are also in Cuban prisons serving sentences of up to 30 years on terrorism-related charges after they attempted to infiltrate the island with weapons.

It is not clear if Washington argued for their release, or for the freedom of Cubans jailed for passing secrets to the United States.

Sanchez highlighted the cases of former high-ranking Cuban government official Miguel Alvarez and his wife, Mercedes Arce, a noted academic, who were jailed in 2012 for undisclosed crimes against the state. Alvarez was sentenced to 25 years, while Arce was given a 15-year term, sources close to their families said.

Most of those released this week were accused of offenses such as resisting arrest and threatening police officers, and had been given shorter sentences of two to five years.

The hip-hop artist Angel Yunier Remon, known as “The Critic”, was serving the longest prison term, eight years.

Remon was arrested in 2013 after painting “Down With The Dictatorship!” on the street outside his home in the eastern city of Bayamo. He staged several hunger strikes behind bars, and said unsanitary prison conditions gave him cholera.

“I‘m so happy to be back with my family, my children, and my wife,” Remon told Reuters by telephone from Bayamo, adding that he had no plans to give up working for the opposition.

“Our country is still a dictatorship,” he said. “We’re going to keep battling for an independent and truly free Cuba.”

SHORT-LIVED RELEASES?

Opposition groups say most of those released over the last couple of days were set free on the condition that they report regularly to the authorities.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a leading critic of Obama’s new Cuba policy, said those terms did not amount to freedom.

“The administration must answer if these conditional, potentially short-lived releases are, in fact, what it agreed to with the regime and why it took so long for them to be released,” Rubio said in a statement.

Cuba’s government does not comment on police actions involving detentions, and it has said nothing about this week’s releases. It says there are no political prisoners in Cuba and typically describes dissidents as U.S.-paid “mercenaries.”

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

Additional reporting by Marc Frank and Rosa Tania Valdes in Havana, and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by David Adams and Kieran Murray

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