Cuba considering pope’s appeal to free political prisoners

HAVANA (AP) — Cuba is seriously considering Pope John Paul II’s appeal to free some prisoners, the National Assembly speaker said, suggesting there could be sentence reductions or early releases on humanitarian grounds.
John Paul made the call for Cuba to release its “prisoners of conscience” in one of the bluntest political messages of his five-day visit to Cuba. Vatican officials also appealed during the visit for clemency on behalf of several hundred Cuban prisoners, both political detainees and common criminals.
In his Prensa Latina remarks, Alarcon suggested there could be sentence reductions or early releases on humanitarian grounds for aged or ill prisoners convicted of common crimes or other offenses. He characterized the pope’s request as an “appeal for clemency by the pope similar to those he has made in many places” on his foreign travels.
Michael E. Ranneberger, head of the Cuban Affairs Office for the U.S. State Department, told The Associated Press in an interview in Havana Wednesday that he hoped — as the pontiff requested — that any inmates released would be allowed to stay in the country.
Fidel Castro’s communist government has honored requests to release prisoners, but has always insisted that they immediately leave the country.
In Rome, the Vatican said it was still waiting for a response to John Paul’s appeal. The Vatican did not make public a list of names or specify the number of prisoners that should be released.
Human rights activists and dissidents have said they are hoping for the release of as many as 200 people they call political prisoners. Those activists complain that conditions for inmates in Cuba’s prison system have worsened with the country’s economic crisis.