By By Daniel Trotta | Reuters –
By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba’s most prominent dissidents say they have been kept in the dark by U.S. officials over a list of 53 political prisoners who will be released from jail as part of a deal to end decades of hostility between the United States and Cuba.
For years, dissident leaders have told the United States which opponents of Cuba’s communist government were being jailed or harassed, but they say they were not consulted when the list of prisoners to be freed was drawn up or even told who is on it.
The lack of information has stoked concern and frustration among the dissidents, who worry that the secret list is flawed and that genuine political prisoners who should be on it will be left to languish.
“We’re concerned because we don’t agree with the silence, because we have a right to know who they are. Who are they?” said Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White dissident group, which marches in Havana on Sundays to demand the release of prisoners.
“There are not just 53 political prisoners, there are more, and we are concerned that the U.S. list might have common criminals on it,” she told Reuters in Havana.
U.S. officials have so far been tight-lipped about how the list of 53 was assembled and who was consulted inside Cuba. It also is not clear if some prisoners were kept off the list because the Cuban government refused to release them.
A U.S. official said on Saturday that Washington had asked Cuba to release a specific group of people jailed on charges related to their political activities, but declined to answer further questions.
Neither the U.S. nor the Cuban governments have said when the prisoners would be released. Cuba declined to comment on why more details have not been publicly released.
The dissident Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which keeps track of activists in the different opposition groups, counted in June a total of 114 political prisoners, although it includes 12 who are on parole after being released from jail plus several others who have since been released.
The group’s veteran leader Elizondo Sanchez, who also spoke with Reuters, says at least 80 peaceful dissidents are on that list, including some whose only crime was to demonstrate or scribble anti-government graffiti.
Others include soldiers who deserted with their weapons, former government officials, people who tried to hijack an airplane to the United States and eight militants jailed for entering Cuba from the United States and trying to start insurrections.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations on Dec. 17, saying they would restore diplomatic ties broken more than five decades ago and he would begin to unravel economic sanctions that were aimed at forcing the communists from power.
U.S. officials said that Cuba agreed as part of the deal to release 53 people that Washington considered political prisoners. Some dissidents say that, so far, none of the 53 have been named and no one has been freed since the deal was announced.
Reuters spoke with five of the most influential dissident leaders in Cuba – Sanchez and Soler as well as Jose Daniel Ferrer, Martha Beatriz Roque and Guillermo Farinas. All said U.S. officials have been in contact with them but have given them no information about the 53 prisoners.
DESPERATE FOR ANSWERS
Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) dissident group, told Reuters he has been in close contact with deeply concerned relatives and that some inmates have called from prison to see if they are likely to be released.
The wife of one prisoner called Ferrer late on Friday.
“She asked me if I thought her husband would be among those to be freed, and I told her the same thing I told other families: We don’t have any certainty and no clues to reach a conclusion about who they are,” Ferrer said.
UNPACU describes 42 of its activists as political prisoners.
Cuba says it has no political prisoners but, announcing the deal with the United States, President Raul Castro said his government would be releasing some inmates who were of interest to the United States. It has said nothing else about them since.
Cuba denounces the dissidents as mercenaries working for the United States in a campaign against Cuba, and the opposition groups have limited popular support.
While Cuba has faced pressure on its human rights record over the years, none of those currently in prison have drawn significant interest internationally.
Within Cuba, one who has generated popular interest is hip-hop artist Angel Yunier Remon, alias “The Critic,” who had actively demonstrated against the government.
He has been in prison since his arrest in March 2013 after a confrontation with police and pro-government demonstrators. Prosecutors are seeking an eight-year prison sentence, Sanchez’s commission says.
Three members of the Ladies in White group were freed on Dec. 9, eight days before the joint U.S.-Cuban announcement. It was unclear if they were counted as part of the 53.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta, Rosa Tania Valdés and Nelson Acosta; Editing by Kieran Murray)