Cuba to release prisoners in response to pope’s appeal

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Cuba announced Thursday it was releasing dozens of prisoners in response to Vatican appeals, giving Pope John Paul II the first major concrete success of his historic pilgrimage last month to the communist island.
The release was first announced by the Vatican, which said Cuba called it “an act of clemency and good will in memory” of John Paul’s five-day visit to the island last month.
It was confirmed in Havana by the Cuban government, which said dozens of prisoners were in the process of being freed and more than 200 soon would be.
The names of the prisoners freed were not released, and it was not immediately clear how many were political prisoners. Human rights groups say that Cuba holds at least 500 political prisoners.
During his trip to the Caribbean island, John Paul pushed for expanded freedom and tried to pave the way for the Roman Catholic Church to play a greater role in Cuban society after nearly four decades of communism.
The Vatican specifically presented a list of several hundred prisoners, including dissidents, gathered from families and human rights organizations.
Cuban Foreign Ministry spokesman Alejandro Gonzalez said 106 of them “were already at liberty. Several dozen more soon will be put at liberty through a pardon, which is in the process of being applied.”
He said still others will be pardoned in line with a Vatican appeal for clemency for other prisoners not on Vatican lists.
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said then that he expected more, larger releases soon.
State Department spokesman James Rubin had called those initial releases “woefully inadequate” in light of what the pope had requested.
“These are a very small number. There are dozens of political prisoners in Cuba, and we would like to see them all released,” Rubin said.