Cuba to free 'several dozen' political prisoners
Pope John Paul II and Fidel Castro met on January 25 in Cuba
Result of Vatican plea during papal visit
February 12, 1998
Web posted at: 5:43 p.m. EST (2243 GMT)
HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- The Cuban government announced Thursday that it will free "several dozen" political prisoners, after a direct plea from the Vatican during Pope John Paul II's recent visit to the Caribbean island nation.
While the pope was in Cuba, the Vatican gave the Cuban government a list of more than 300 people that it considered prisoners of conscience in Cuban jails.
Cuban Foreign Ministry spokesman Alejandro Gonzalez said of those on the list, 106 were already free. "Several dozen more soon will be put at liberty through a pardon, which is in the process of being applied," he said.
The Cuban government did not disclose who would be released or when they would actually be freed.
In addition, more than 200 other prisoners not on the Vatican's list will also be freed, Gonzalez said. Some of those were in jail for criminal offenses, but some were also accused of political crimes.
Those additional releases were "justified from a humanitarian view, for reasons of age, health or other similar circumstances," Gonzalez said.
Vatican 'delighted'; U.S. says release 'inadequate'
|Havana Bureau Chief Lucia Newman reports on the release of political prisoners in Cuba
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Visitors from international governments routinely ask for prisoner releases, and some of those requests have been granted on a small scale. But the release announced Thursday was the largest in years.
A communiqu from the Vatican said it was "delighted with this notable step which represents a concrete prospect of hope for the future of this noble nation."
But U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin called the initial releases "woefully inadequate," given the number of prisoners on the Vatican's list.
"These are a very small number. There are dozens of political prisoners in Cuba, and we would like to see them all released," Rubin said.
Dissident groups in Cuba estimate that there are about 500 political prisoners in Cuba's jails, about half as many as there were a year ago.
Dissidents' relatives wait for news
In Cuba, dissidents and relatives of political prisoners anxiously awaited news of who would be freed.
"We are waiting very close beside the telephone," said Gerardo Sanchez, a member of the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which monitors and documents political jailings in Cuba.
Jorge Gomez, whose brother, Rene, was imprisoned last summer, was joyous at the news of the prisoner releases.
"I have to suppose my brother will be one of [those released] because he is among the four most prominent [political prisoners]," Gomez said.
Rene Gomez was among a group of four dissidents, called the "Working Group," who were arrested for criticizing the Communist Party's official blueprint for governing Cuba, which came out of the Cuban Communist Party's 5th Party Congress last year.
Havana Bureau Chief Lucia Newman and Reuters contributed to this report.