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Cuba to free 7 dissidents, Spain says

MADRID - Cuba will free seven of 59 dissidents held since 2003 for health reasons in the first such release since last August, Spain's Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said on Friday.

"The decision was made unilaterally by the Cuban authorities and we are very satisfied," Moratinos told Spanish radio from the city of Cordoba, noting that the move came after dialogue with Cuba.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos is seen in Madrid in this December 3, 2007 file photo. Cuba will free seven of 59 dissidents held since 2003 for health reasons in the first such release since last August, Moratinos said on Friday. (REUTERS/Susana Vera/Files)

The dissidents will be freed for health reasons, Spanish radio said. The newspaper El Pais reported on its Web site that four of them will be sent to Spain with their families to receive medical treatment.

Cuba's main rights group said the seven dissidents to be released included Omar Pernet Hernandez, Jose Gabriel Ramon Castillo, Alejandro Gonzalez Raga, Jorge Luis Garcia Paneque and Pedro Pablo Alvarez Ramos.

The group headed by rights activist Elizardo Sanchez said the dissidents had been brought from different jails around Cuba to Havana's main prison for their release.

"This is very good news," said dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua. "It shows the Cuban government is responding to requests for their release from the international community."

The releases showed that a strategy of dialogue and engagement of Cuba's communist government advocated by Spain within the European Union has paid off with "concrete results," he said.

The dissidents were arrested in a political crackdown ordered by Cuban leader Fidel Castro in March 2003 that put 75 of his opponents in prison with sentences of up to 28 years.

Sixteen had already been freed on health grounds.

Sanchez said there were 234 political prisoners in Cuba at the end of 2007, down from 283 a year before, indicating a drop in the number of Cubans behind bars for political reasons since Raul Castro took over as acting president from his ailing brother Fidel in mid-2006.

Last August, Cuba released on parole its longest-serving political prisoner, Francisco Chaviano Gonzalez, a former maths professor and human rights activist who had spent more than 13 years in jail.

Morua said more releases can be expected as Havana prepares to sign the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and a similar pact on economic and social rights by next month. This would oblige Cuba to accept regular U.N. monitoring of its human rights record from 2009.

The Cuban government does not allow the International Red Cross access to its prisons. It denies holding any political prisoners and labels dissidents "counter-revolutionary mercenaries" on the payroll of its arch-enemy, the United States.

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