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    Cuba has freed all 53 prisoners as agreed in U.S. deal – U.S. officials

    Exclusive: Cuba has freed all 53 prisoners as agreed in U.S. deal – U.S.
    officials
    BY MATT SPETALNICK, DAVID ADAMS AND LESLEY WROUGHTON
    WASHINGTON/HAVANA Mon Jan 12, 2015 7:11am EST

    (Reuters) – Cuba has released all 53 prisoners it had promised to free,
    senior U.S. officials said, a major step toward détente with Washington.

    The release of the remaining prisoners sets a positive tone for historic
    talks next week aimed at normalizing relations after decades of
    hostility, the officials said.

    They described the Cuban government’s release over the weekend of the
    last detainees on the list as a milestone but said they would keep
    pressing Havana to free more people the United States considers
    political prisoners.

    The officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, did not
    say how many prisoners were released over the weekend or identify them.
    But the White House will provide the names of all 53 to Congress and
    expects lawmakers to make them public, the officials added.

    There had been questions over whether Havana would release all 53
    prisoners as part of the deal Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro
    announced on Dec. 17 to restore diplomatic ties that Washington severed
    more than 50 years ago.

    Intense secrecy surrounding the 53, whose names have been withheld by
    both countries, had fueled skepticism over Cuba’s intentions and played
    to critics who said Washington hasn’t pressured Havana enough on human
    rights in exchange for normalizing ties and loosening economic and
    travel restrictions.

    The U.S. exchanged three convicted Cuban spies for an agent who had
    spied for the U.S. government. The United States also received Alan
    Gross, a U.S. aid worker jailed in Cuba.

    The Cuban government informed the Obama administration over the weekend
    that the last of those on the list of prisoners had been released, and
    the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which handles consular affairs and
    other contacts for Washington, confirmed it, the officials said.

    The U.S. officials said they would pressure communist-ruled Cuba to
    release more prisoners.

    “The fact of the matter is there are other individuals whose cases we
    have raised in the past,” one of the officials said. “We have every
    expectation of going forward in the future. We’re going to be wanting to
    raise the cases of different individuals who may be detained in Cuba for
    exercising their universal rights.”

    Cuba’s government says there are no political prisoners on the island
    and typically describes dissidents as U.S.-paid mercenaries.

    “WE’LL SEE IN THE NEXT FEW DAYS”

    Leading Cuban dissidents said that as of Sunday they had not received
    word that the prisoner release was complete and only knew of up to 39
    people freed since Dec. 17, including a popular hip-hop artist.

    “We have heard nothing new today,” said Elizardo Sanchez, president of
    the dissident Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National
    Reconciliation, which monitors detentions. “We’ll see in the next few
    days if they complete the list.”

    Secrecy around the list has made it difficult for Sanchez and other
    dissidents to confirm a precise tally of those freed.

    Speaking in detail on the prisoner release for the first time since last
    month’s dramatic shift in Cuba policy, the U.S. officials said the idea
    grew out of secret talks on how to release Gross and how to structure
    the spy swap.

    As progress was made and both sides began seeing prospects for a broader
    rapprochement between the old Cold War foes last year, U.S. negotiators
    sought proof of Cuba’s readiness to improve its human rights record and
    last spring presented a list of prisoners they wanted to see released,
    the officials said.

    The Cubans agreed to almost everyone on the list with the exception of a
    handful before the names were finalized. In July, they told Obama’s
    aides that Havana was prepared to release 53 prisoners, the officials said.

    A final meeting was held at the Vatican, where each side reviewed the
    different steps each side committed to take, including the Cuban
    prisoner release, the officials said, and then the broader deal was
    rolled out last month after 18 months of negotiations.

    One U.S. official also said Obama could exercise executive powers “in a
    matter of days and weeks” to begin easing some business and travel
    restrictions.

    The officials said the first of those changes could be announced around
    the time of the Jan. 21-22 talks in Havana, when U.S. Assistant
    Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson begins high-level negotiations on
    issues ranging from investments to immigration.

    Reopening the U.S. embassy in Havana for the first time in 53 years will
    also be a “near-term” focus for the administration and an issue that
    Jacobson will discuss with the Cubans, but there is no timeline, one of
    the U.S. officials said.This official said the future of the U.S. Naval
    Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – long a sore point with the Havana
    government – was not “on the table” during last year’s talks and that
    the United States has also made clear that it will continue its
    “democracy program” aimed at Cuba.

    “You don’t erase decades of mistrust overnight but you can chip away at
    it by taking steps to improve the relationship,” the official said.

    To make its list of prisoners to be released, the United States used
    information drawn from names of detainees provided by dissident
    activists in Cuba and human rights groups, and compiled names of what it
    considered to be core political prisoners who had been jailed for having
    peacefully exercised their rights of freedom of expression and assembly.

    But it is unclear exactly how many dissidents are not on the list. Left
    out were the names of at least eight Cuban exile militants jailed on
    terrorism charges after they attempted to infiltrate Cuba with weapons,
    as well as 20 Cubans jailed on charges of attempting to hijack boats or
    planes. Also excluded, U.S. officials say, were several Cubans jailed
    on unspecified charges of crimes against the state, including a handful
    of people believed to have spied for the United States.

    (Editing by Jason Szep and Frances Kerry)

    Source: Exclusive: Cuba has freed all 53 prisoners as agreed in U.S.
    deal – U.S. officials | Reuters –
    http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/12/us-usa-cuba-prisoners-idUSKBN0KL10K20150112