Freed Cuban dissidents speak after landing in Spain

The Cuban government has agreed to free all 52 of the prisoners in the coming months

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Seven Cuban dissidents have spoken on arriving in Spain after their release from prison in Cuba.

In a statement issued after they landed in Madrid, the freed men said exile was a "continuation of the struggle".

They are the first of 52 political prisoners that Cuba agreed to release last week after the intercession of Spain and the Catholic Church.

They were jailed in a government crackdown in 2003 which triggered EU sanctions.

Cuba came under international pressure to free them after a jailed dissident starved himself to death earlier this year to draw attention to their plight.

'A new stage'

One of the dissidents, Ricardo Gonzalez, said at Madrid's Barajas airport that "change begins with freedom, not only ours and our companions, but all Cuban citizens".

Julio Cesar Galvez Rodriguez greets a woman at Madrid's Barajas airport

He continued: "We are sure that, given the seriousness of the Church and Spanish government, all prisoners will be freed."

A second, Julio Cesar Galvez, said: "This signifies the start of a new stage for the future of Cuba and all Cubans.

"We hope that those [prisoners] who remain in Cuba will enjoy the same freedom as we do."

The others now in Spain are Lester Gonzalez, Omar Ruiz, Antonio Villarreal, Jose Luis Garcia Paneque and Pablo Pacheco.

Just hours before the dissidents left Havana on Monday evening, former President Fidel Castro made a rare TV appearance.

The 83-year-old spoke at length in an interview on state television about international affairs but did not mention the dissidents.

Continued protests

The Cuban government has agreed to free all 52 of the prisoners in the coming months. At least 20 are said to have expressed a desire to go to Spain.

Start Quote

While there is one political prisoner or prisoner of conscience, there will be Ladies in White”

End Quote Laura Pollan Leader, Ladies in White

Spanish officials say they will not be required to stay in the country and will be free to head elsewhere. Both the US and Chile have offered them asylum.

Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCHRNR), has said at least three prisoners have told the Church that they want to remain in Cuba.

The prisoner release, announced last Wednesday, could become the biggest this decade on the communist-ruled island.

The 52 prisoners were part of a group of 75 dissidents rounded up in 2003 and sentenced to jail terms of between six and 28 years. The other 23 have already been freed.

On Sunday, a group of the wives and mothers of the political prisoners - known as the Ladies in White - staged their weekly march through Havana calling for the release of all political prisoners.

The leader of the Ladies in White said their marches would continue.

"While there is one political prisoner or prisoner of conscience, there will be Ladies in White," Laura Pollan said.

Before Monday's releases there was a total of 167 "prisoners of conscience" in Cuba, according to the CCHRNR.

Cuba has always denied that it has political prisoners, describing them as criminals paid by the US to destabilise the country.

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