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Cardinal says Cuba will free prisoners as promised

HAVANA (Reuters) - Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega assured on Saturday that “in coming months” Cuban leaders would release 11 political prisoners as promised under a landmark deal with the government.

Speaking at a New Year’s Day mass, Ortega expressed confidence the communist-led government would fulfill its commitment to release the men, who were among 52 dissidents included in the accord he brokered and announced on July 7.

The announcement said the process would take three to four months, but so far, almost six months later, only 41 of the prisoners have been freed.

The 52 were part of a group of dissidents jailed in a 2003 government crackdown that strained Cuba’s international relations.

“A clear and formal promise from the Cuban government exists that all those prisoners will be freed,” he said of the 11.

He and Cuban leaders have previously said the government planned to release not just the 52, but all political prisoners. Ortega repeated that in his mass.

“I have the moral certainty that in the coming months not only those (11) prisoners will be freed, but others of a larger group of prisoners sanctioned for some type of act related to political actions,” he said.

Cuban leaders consider dissidents to be mercenaries in the pay of Havana’s longtime ideological enemy, the United States, and they want the freed prisoners to leave Cuba and go to Spain, which has agreed to take them.

Of the 41 released so far, 40 have accepted the deal, while one has been allowed to stay in Cuba.

Some of the 11 remaining prisoners want to go to the United States and others want to stay on the Caribbean island, Ortega said.

There is disagreement over how many other political prisoners Cuba has, but in recent months the government has freed 16 not included in the group of 52.

All have agreed to go to Spain.

Cuba’s decision to release political prisoners followed an international uproar over the February death of a jailed dissident after an 85-day hunger strike for improved prison conditions.

Reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; Editing by Jeff Franks and Paul Simao