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    Human rights activists search for signs of Cuban prisoner release

    Human rights activists search for signs of Cuban prisoner release
    BY MIMI WHITEFIELD MWHITEFIELD@MIAMIHERALD.COM
    01/06/2015 7:00 AM 01/06/2015 8:04 PM

    Staffers at the Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba have
    been calling the relatives of dozens of long-term Cuban political
    prisoners non-stop in recent days to see if anyone has been freed as
    part of Raúl Castro’s offer to release 53 political prisoners.

    Other than three dissidents released days prior to the historic Dec. 17
    announcement that Cuba and the United States would be renewing
    diplomatic relations after 53 years of isolation, the answer is always
    the same, said Francisco “Pepe’’ Hernández, director of the organization
    and also president of the Cuban American National Foundation.

    “Everybody says no, they haven’t heard anything,” said Hernández. Human
    rights activists in Cuba say they also haven’t received news of any
    prisoner movements — often a sign that dissidents are about to be released.

    Not only is there scant news on any releases but it’s also not clear who
    is on the list of 53 prisoners to be released.

    The State Department said Washington came up with a list of people who
    had been jailed for political activities on the island that it wanted
    Cuba to free — but the prisoner release wasn’t part of the deal brokered
    with Cuba to restore diplomatic ties and secure the release of three
    Cuban spies jailed in the United States and USAID subcontractor Alan
    Gross and a CIA operative who were serving long prison terms in Cuba.

    Castro, however, included the prisoner release offer in his Dec. 17
    speech announcing the historic changes.

    “This is a commitment that [the Cubans] made not just to the United
    States but to the Vatican as well,” State Department spokeswoman Jen
    Psaki said at a Tuesday press briefing.

    “We will continue, of course, to urge the Cuban government to follow
    through on its commitment,” Psaki said. “They have already released some
    of the prisoners. We’d like to see this completed in the near future.”

    Hernández said the only dissidents he is aware of that have been
    released are Sonia Garro Alfonso, a member of the Ladies in White
    dissident group; her husband Ramón Alejandro Muñoz González and their
    neighbor Eugenio Hernández.

    During a briefing call from the White House a day prior to the
    announcement, Pepe Hernández said the foundation was told that those
    three releases would count toward the 53 prisoners to be freed.

    The couple and their neighbor were jailed on March 8, 2012 and their
    trial had been postponed four times before they were finally released on
    Dec. 9. They were accused of public disorder and attempted murder and
    Garro faced an additional assault charge.

    The charges against them stemmed from a demonstration staged by a
    pro-government mob at the couple’s home to prevent them from taking part
    in a dissident event. During the melee, Cuba’s public prosecutor said
    the two men threw objects, including a television, from the roof of the
    Garro-Muñoz home at two state security agents.

    The Foundation for Human Rights has its own list of 57 Cuban political
    prisoners that it supports. It sends their relatives money, medicine and
    other humanitarian aid, said Hernández.

    “There was an indication from the White House that at least some of our
    names would be on the list,” Hernández said. “We hope all those on our
    list are under consideration.”

    Psaki said she doesn’t expect the U.S. will be making the names public.
    “We’re not looking to put a bigger target on Cuban political dissidents.
    We’re looking to get them released, and this is the process that we
    think will be most effective in getting that done,” she said.

    She also said she expected the prisoner release and human rights to be
    among the topics when Cuba and U.S. officials meet in Havana later this
    month to discuss migration and the process for normalizing diplomatic
    relations.

    Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio sent a letter to President Barack
    Obama on Tuesday urging him to cancel the trip by Assistant Secretary of
    State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson “at least until
    all 53 political prisoners, plus those arrested since your December 17th
    announcement have been released and are no longer subjected to
    repression that often takes the form of house arrests, aggressive
    surveillance, denied Internet access, forced exile and other forms of
    harassment.

    “Almost three weeks after your Cuba announcement, there is absolutely no
    reason why any of these individuals should be in prison or the targets
    of repression — or for their identities, conditions and whereabouts to
    remain such closely held secrets,” Rubio wrote.

    White House spokesman Josh Earnest emphasized that the Cuban government
    decided to undertake the prisoner release on its own “in the context of
    these discussions” to normalize relations.

    “What I would say at this point, there’s no reason to think that they
    are walking back on any part of the agreement,” he said.

    “Not everyone is going to be released at once,” said Tomas Bilbao,
    executive director of the Cuban Study Group, which supports peaceful
    change in Cuba. He noted that the Group of 75 dissidents who were
    imprisoned during the Black Spring crackdown in 2003 weren’t all
    released simultaneously either.

    As part of that deal, Cuba wanted them and their families to accept
    exile in Spain, but about a dozen refused to leave the island and were
    allowed to stay.

    Source: Human rights activists search for signs of Cuban prisoner
    release | The Miami Herald –
    http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article5524338.html