Cuban political prisoners leaving for exile in Canada
The Canadian Embassy in Havana
In this story:
April 6, 1998
Web posted at: 9:19 p.m. EDT (0119 GMT)
HAVANA (CNN) -- Cuban political prisoners whose release was sought by Pope John Paul II were to be freed Monday night and flown to exile in Canada.
Although Canadian immigration officials and a Cuban human rights group differed on the number being released -- the Canadians said 11, the Cuban group said six -- they were to fly late Monday night from Havana to Toronto.
Canadian officials said more prisoners were to be released later.
"What we have today is the departure of the first group ... which is going to travel to Canada," said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
The Canadian government originally announced it would accept 19 Cuban "prisoners of conscience" who would be freed by the Cuban government on the condition that they leave the communist-ruled island.
But Sanchez said the Canadian authorities have since rejected
five of the 19 because of the violent nature of their offenses, including hijacking and unspecified terrorism charges.
Pope John Paul II appealed for clemency for the prisoners during his visit to Cuba in January
Eric Tetrault, a Canadian spokesman, would not say whether any of the original 19 had been rejected, but he did say that decisions have been made on each case and would be announced soon.
'It was so unexpected'
The Canadian and Cuban governments have refused to release the names of the prisoners involved or discuss any details of their cases.
But Sanchez, whose non-governmental group monitors human rights and prisoners' issues in Cuba, said those leaving Monday are Edelberto del Toro Argota, Omar del Pozo Marrero, Adriano Gonzalez Marichal, Armando Alonso Romero, Victor
Reynaldo Infante Estrada and Luis Alberto Ferrandiz Alfaro.
Del Pozo is a well-known political dissident who has been serving a 15-year jail term for "revealing state security secrets." He was believed to have been the subject of past diplomatic initiatives by the Canadian government seeking to obtain his release.
The others due to travel to Canada were serving jail terms of four to 14 years for offenses such as "enemy propaganda" and "rebellion."
Some are to be accompanied by family members.
"We're tense," said Ferrandiz' wife. "It was so unexpected. We feel sad because we're abandoning our families, our parents, but it's necessary."
Del Toro is greeted by his family
Del Toro said that if he hadn't agreed to leave Cuba, "They would never have let me work. They would have continued to persecute me because I was a human rights activist."
Another 300 still imprisoned?
Sanchez applauded the release of the prisoners, saying, "I think it's a humanitarian gesture on the part of the Canadian government and we now hope our government will continue the process of prisoner releases. Right now, 110 people have been released, which means that the number of political prisoners in Cuba is diminishing."
But he also said he opposed the exiling of Cuban prisoners. "Our position is to seek the unconditional freedom of all political prisoners," he said.
Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy said last month
that the Canadian government had decided it was worth agreeing to the condition of exile if it meant getting people out of prison.
Cuba claims it has released 299 prisoners, including political detainees, since mid-February in response to an appeal made by the pope during his historic visit in January.
But Sanchez says his commission has only been able to confirm, through family members, the release of 110 prisoners, all of whom were allowed to stay on the island.
Sanchez said the five prisoners originally scheduled to be deported but rejected by the Canadian authorities are Tomas Ramos Rodriguez, Gustavo Rodriguez Sosa, Miguel Angel Fernandez Crespo, Evelice Camejo Molerio and Arturo Suarez Ramos.
Human rights activists say the Cuban government is still holding another 300 political prisoners.
Havana Bureau Chief Lucia Newman and Reuters contributed to this report.