Latin America & Caribbean

Freed Cuban dissidents arrive in Spain

Irene Viera, the wife of community organiser Julio Cesar Galvez, packs a suitcase (12 July 2010)
Image caption The dissidents' families had been told to prepare to leave at short notice

The first group out of 52 political prisoners Cuba has agreed to free are now in the Spanish capital, Madrid.

The seven men and their families flew to Spain on two commercial flights.

The release of the dissidents, who were jailed as part of a government crackdown in 2003, was brokered last week by the Catholic Church and Spain.

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.

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.

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.

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 unofficial 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.

Continued protests

The former prisoners were reunited with their wives and children late on Monday. Spanish consular officials at the airport interviewed them one by one and then granted them visas.

In a phone call from Havana airport, one of the freed men, Omar Ruiz, told the Associated Press: "I won't consider myself free until I arrive in Spain."

In the hours before their departure, relatives had been told to prepare to leave Cuba at a moment's notice.

"Sunday they performed medical check-ups, did paperwork for the passports and told us to be ready starting today," Irene Viera, the wife of community organiser Julio Cesar Galvez, told AP.

"I'm very nervous about all of this," she said. "I can finally see him without it being in prison for the first time in years."

The first flight, operated by Air Europa, landed at Madrid's Barajas airport with Lester Gonzalez, Omar Ruiz, Antonio Villarreal, Julio Cesar Galvez, Jose Luis Garcia Paneque and Pablo Pacheco on board at 1249 local time (1049 GMT).

The second, operated by Iberia, carrying journalist Ricardo Gonzalez and his family, arrived shortly afterwards.

Image caption The Ladies in White's fight to secure the release of all dissidents goes on

Mr Gonzalez's wife told the BBC on Monday that one of the first things they would do after arriving would be to go for a long walk together.

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

Under the agreement, 52 political prisoners should be freed in the coming months.

All 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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