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Freed Cuban dissidents heading for Spain

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Group of Cuban political prisoners is flying to Madrid
  • They are among 52 dissidents that Cuba's Roman Catholic Church said would be freed
  • The prisoners were jailed during a government crackdown in March 2003
  • News of the commercial flight's departure comes hours after Castro's remarks on Cuban TV
  • Spain
  • Cuba

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- The first group among 52 Cuban political prisoners to be freed is expected to arrive in Spain Tuesday, officials and family members said.

A group of prisoners left the island nation on a commercial flight Monday night, according to the head of Cuba's independent Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Prisoner Jose Luis Garcia Paneque was among them, his cousin, Raul Smith Paneque, told CNN from his home in Las Tunas, Cuba.

A Spanish Foreign Ministry spokesman told CNN Monday that the country was expecting to receive seven released dissidents and their family members, but that tally is subject to change.

The arriving Cubans will receive residency permission and working papers, which is not political asylum, the spokesman said. The permission would allow the dissidents to return to Cuba at some point if they wanted.

The 52 political prisoners are the remainder of a larger group of 75 dissidents who were jailed during a government crackdown on political opposition in March 2003.

They represent roughly one-third of all known political prisoners left on the island, the Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation said.

News of the prisoners' departure came hours after former Cuban leader Fidel Castro spoke in a rare televised interview Monday.

Castro has been largely out of sight since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. He ceded power to younger brother Raul Castro in February 2008.

He did not mention the prisoners' release in his remarks, instead lashing out at the United States' foreign policy.

His comments were based on a column published Monday, which warned of a possible nuclear war involving the United States and Iran, sparked by conflict over that country's nuclear activities.

CNN's David Ariosto, Al Goodman and Claudia Rebaza contributed to this report.