Cuba pardons thousands: Cuba Release Prisoners

Published: September 14, 2015

Cuba pardons thousands: Cuba Release Prisoners, The Cuban government announced Friday that it would release 3,522 prisoners from its jails before the pope’s visit this month, a gesture the nation also took before the last papal visit, in 2011.

The authorities will pardon a mix of women, inmates younger than 20 with no prior offenses, those older than 60, prisoners with illnesses, some foreigners whose countries have agreed to repatriate them and others whose terms are coming to an end. But they will not free those charged with serious crimes like murder or child sexual abuse or crimes against national security, which often means they are political prisoners.

The Cuban government has twice before released prisoners preceding a papal visit, measures meant to elicit good will for the state.

Now, however, ahead of the visit of a popular pope and in the wake of warming diplomatic ties with the United States, the move is sure to garner more attention than in the past. Pope Francis will be visiting Cuba from Sept. 19 to Sept. 22.

“It’s a gift to Pope Francis – a grand gesture,” said Elizardo S├ínchez, president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a group that tracks rights in Cuba.

The release of the prisoners is unlikely to signal that a sea change is underway in Cuba. Records of dissidents for 2014 show that short-term detentions increased about 30 percent from the year before, to 8,899 people, reflecting the fact that even as high-profile releases are underway, the authorities continue to detain opponents of the Castro government.

Sebasti├ín A. Arcos, a former political prisoner in Cuba, said the mass release on the cusp of the pope’s visit was a cynical and opportunistic effort to demonstrate a more tolerant government.

“It’s makeup,” he said.

Mr. Arcos, the associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami, noted that Cuba was able to make such a mass release largely because so many people were jailed for doing things that would not be illegal in any other country.

“The reality is that Cuban prisons are overpopulated, and they have been for many years, because we are talking about a police state, a repressive police state, where almost anything is a crime,” he said. “Before these economic reforms were implemented, selling peanuts on the corner in Havana was a crime.”

In December 2011, the government announced the release of 2,900 prisoners in conditions similar to those announced Friday. At the time, a visit from Pope Benedict XVI was cited as a reason for the move. Some of those released had been convicted of crimes against the security of the state, though the government clarified that they did not include political prisoners.

In January, the Cuban government announced the release of 53 dissidents under the accord with the United States to restore diplomatic ties. Though some had already served their sentences and were released months before, it was seen as an important step between the countries.

Victoria Burnett contributed reporting.

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