Cuba has agreed to release 52 political prisoners in what would be the biggest release of political detainees by the island's communist authorities in decades.
Five political prisoners who have spent the past seven years in jail after a 2003 opposition crackdown were expected to be released at any time, while an additional 47 dissidents, all jailed in the same roundup, were due to follow in the months to come.
The release, seen as a response to mounting international pressure on the communist island nation, could cut the number of political prisoners held in Cuba's by one-third.
The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba, Archbishop Jaime Ortega, announced the deal on July 7 following talks with President Raul Castro and visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.
Moratinos, whose country has led the European Union's efforts to engage the communist state, welcomed the plan.
"It will be done in a gradual way, but the commitment is to definitely carry it out -- it was a clear commitment -- and we are very satisfied," Moratinos said.
'First Steps Of True Freedom'
The release, if completed, will mark the single-largest discharge of political prisoners since 1998, when 300 prisoners, including 101 dissidents, were freed following a visit by Pope John Paul II.
The 52 men due to be released are among 75 community activists and opposition journalists arrested in the 2003 roundup, which was hotly criticized by the international community.
Some of the original prisoners had previously been freed after completing their terms or for health reasons.
One of them, journalist Jose Gabriel Ramon Castillo, spoke to RFE/RL from Spain, where he now lives. Ramon Castillo described as "terrible" the seven years of jail the prisoners had endured, saying the majority had contracted diseases while in prison.
"We view very positively the liberation of the political prisoners of [Cuba's] Black Spring," Ramon Castillo said. "This was a situation created by the Cuban regime itself when it jailed 75 dissidents for speaking freely, asking peacefully for political change in the country, and then the government decided to jail all of us and take us [to] Castro's prisons."
Human rights groups in Cuba and abroad have cautiously welcomed the move, which comes two years after Raul Castro assumed the presidency from his brother, longtime leader Fidel Castro, who jailed an estimated 15,000 opponents following the 1959 revolution that put him in power.
Laura Pollen, who leads the Ladies in White protest group of prisoners' wives, expressed hope the release would mark "the first steps of a true freedom, of a true democracy."
Keeping On The Pressure
But some Cuban-born politicians in the United States say the release is a publicity stunt and urged the West to maintain pressure on Havana until all political prisoners are released.
The United States has maintained a trade embargo against its southern neighbor for 48 years.
The prisoner-release pledge follows strong international criticism of Cuba after the death in February of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a dissident on hunger strike. A second dissident, Guillermo Farinas, has followed suit with a 134-day strike that has reportedly left him near death.
Farinas has demanded the release of dozens of political prisoners who are believed to be among those jailed in 2003. Speaking from a hospital in the city of Santa Clara, he said he is prepared to carry out his strike to the death unless he receives confirmation from the church or the government that his demands have been met.
Cardinal Ortega has refused to identify which of the 52 prisoners will be among the first five released, saying their relatives have yet to be notified. He expressed optimism that all prisoners would be released soon.
"I had hoped that they would begin to announce the releases. It was interesting, and perhaps surprising, to see this announcement made while Foreign Minister Moratinos was here, and that they chose [the church] to make the announcement," Ortega said. "But on the other hand, we hope that the releases continue in the same rhythm."
The first five prisoners to be released are due to travel to Spain, where they will live in exile. It is not clear whether the subsequent prisoners will likewise be exiled, or have the option of remaining in Cuba.
Rights groups have criticized the move, saying exile is not the same as unconditional freedom. But Moratinos said the exiles would be able to return to Cuba for visits, a measure that would imply a softening in the communist government's policy.
compiled from RFE/RL and agency reports