HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba will free seven of 59 dissidentsimprisoned since 2003, a move that opponents of ailing Cubanleader Fidel Castro said reflects a "climate of change" underhis brother's rule.
The first releases of jailed dissidents since August werenegotiated by Spain on health grounds and announced by SpanishForeign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos on Friday.
"The decision was made unilaterally by the Cubanauthorities and we are very satisfied," Moratinos told Spanishradio from the city of Cordoba, noting that the move came afterdialogue with Cuba.
The Spanish newspaper El Pais reported on its Web site thatfour of them will be sent to Spain with their families toreceive medical treatment.
The four dissidents who will go to Spain have been gatheredfrom different jails around Cuba in the Combinado del Esteprison on the outskirts of Havana. They are Omar Pernet, JoseGabriel Ramon Castillo, Alejandro Gonzalez and Pedro PabloAlvarez.
"We hope ours are not the only releases," Alvarez, 60, toldReuters by telephone from the prison. "The four of us are well.They've treated us well. We don't know when they will free us;it could be today or tomorrow," he said.
The dissidents were arrested in a political crackdownordered by Cuban leader Fidel Castro in March 2003 that put 75of his opponents in prison with sentences of up to 28 years.
'CLIMATE OF CHANGE'
Sixteen had already been freed on health grounds. One ofthem, economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, said the new releaseswere a step in the right direction by acting President RaulCastro, who has been running Cuba since Fidel Castro wassidelined by illness in July 2006. He has not appeared inpublic since.
"This is a rational step by the Cuban government and by thereformist sectors within that want change," Espinosa Chepesaid. "It reflects a climate of change and will benefit thatclimate of change," he said.
Another dissident, Manuel Cuesta Morua, said the governmentof Raul Castro was responding to requests by the internationalcommunity for improved respect for human rights in Cuba.
The releases show that a strategy of dialogue andengagement of Cuba's communist government advocated by Spainwithin the European Union is paying off with "concreteresults," Morua said.
Cuba's main rights group, the illegal but tolerated CubanCommission for Human Rights, says there were 234 politicalprisoners in Cuba at the end of 2007, down from 283 a yearearlier, indicating a drop in the number of Cubans behind barsfor political reasons since Raul Castro took over.
Last August, Cuba released its longest-serving politicalprisoner, Francisco Chaviano Gonzalez, a former mathematicsprofessor and rights activist who had spent more than 13 yearsin jail.
Morua said more releases can be expected as Havana preparesto sign the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and PoliticalRights and a similar pact on economic and social rights by nextmonth. This would oblige Cuba to accept regular U.N. monitoringof its human rights record from 2009.
The Cuban government does not allow the International RedCross access to its prisons. It denies holding any politicalprisoners and labels dissidents "counter-revolutionarymercenaries" on the payroll of its arch-enemy, the UnitedStates.
(Reporting by Jason Webb in Madrid and Anthony Boadle inHavana; editing by Eric Walsh)