Cuba

53 Cuban political prisoners are free, but controversy remains

Some of the 53 political prisoners that Cuba freed recently celebrate outside the church of Santa Rita in Havana with members of the Ladies in White dissident group on Jan. 11, 2014.
Some of the 53 political prisoners that Cuba freed recently celebrate outside the church of Santa Rita in Havana with members of the Ladies in White dissident group on Jan. 11, 2014. Provided by FHRC

Even though the United States has verified that all 53 Cuban political prisoners on a list it submitted to Havana last summer have been freed, the list continues to stir controversy.

First, human rights monitors said the numbers didn’t add up. By their count, 39 political prisoners were released starting Dec. 17 when the United States and Cuba announced they were renewing diplomatic ties after 53 years of isolation.

But the White House had an explanation for that this week. It submitted a list of political prisoners it wanted to see freed to the Cubans in July, and since then some on the list began to come out of Cuban prisons — even though negotiations with Havana were ongoing.

“You can imagine that the list of 53 political prisoners that we produced to the Castro regime was not a list that we gave them the day before we made this announcement [on normalization of relations],” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “This is a list that was extensively reviewed and negotiated and discussed.”

It was developed, he said, with the help of human rights organizations and included those “imprisoned by the Cuban government for exercising internationally protected freedoms or for their promotion of political and social reforms in Cuba.”

The release of the 53 prisoners was a promise that Cuba made. Although it was discussed in the secret talks, it was not part of the normalization deal.

The media also has pressed the White House to unveil the 53 names but the administration instead opted to give the list to members of Congress who were then free to share it.

One of the reasons the White House isn’t publicly disseminating the list, said Earnest, is that it doesn’t want to give “the impression that these are the only 53 political prisoners that we care about. There are other individuals who are being unjustly detained in Cuban prisons, and we're going to continue to advocate and push for the Castro regime…to release those individuals as well,” Earnest said.

The Miami Herald obtained the list from a Congressional source and has researched the backgrounds of the former prisoners. Some were imprisoned only since last year, but at least one was serving a sentence that goes back to 2010. Among the offenses that landed them in jail were dangerousness, public disorder, resisting arrest, distributing anti-government leaflets, and disrespecting the Castro brothers.

Human rights activists also point out that many of the political prisoners released in recent days haven’t been unconditionally freed. Some have charges pending against them; others were released conditionally or on an extra-penal license that could land them back in jail if they run afoul of Cuban authorities.

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