The Cuban government on Thursday began the process of releasing political prisoners as part of an agreement with the Roman Catholic Church [church website], which was brokered by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos [official website, in Spanish]. Under the agreement, five prisoners will be released [AP report] within the next several days, while several others will be moved to prisons closer to Havana in anticipation of the remaining 47 being released within the next two months. Spain has formally agreed to accept the five prisoners who are to be freed immediately and has also informally agreed to accept all 52 of the prisoners. The freed dissidents are expected to leave Cuba in exile. The political prisoners to be released were all captured as part of a 2003 tightening on dissent within the country. A total of 75 dissidents were arrested at that time, although 23 have subsequently been released. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton [official website] indicated that she was encouraged by news of the agreement [AFP report], but would not comment as to whether the release would have any impact on US-Cuba relations. A US State Department spokesperson also indicated that the US would be willing to accept any of the freed prisoners.
Cuba continues to face criticism for its human rights record. Last week, Amnesty International (AI) [advocacy website] criticized the Cuban legal system [JURIST report], stating that the government's restrictions on freedom of expression create a "climate of fear" among journalists and activists. The report follows a statement released by AI in March urging the Cuban authorities [JURIST report] to "revoke laws that restrict freedom of expression, assembly and association and to release all dissidents unfairly detained by the authorities." Also in March, the US State Department [official website] criticized Cuba for interfering with the right to privacy in its 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices [materials; JURIST report]. In November, Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] released a report [text, PDF; JURIST report] claiming that the Cuban government continued to repress dissidents and violate fundamental civil liberties of Cubans, and resorted to imposing short-term imprisonment measures to elude international critique. According to a February 2009 report by the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) [El Pais backgrounder, in Spanish], the number of political prisoners in Cuba had declined [JURIST report] from 234 in January 2008 to 205, while the number of brief detentions had increased.