Cuba to pardon 3,500 prisoners ahead of Pope Francis’ visit

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Pope Francis arrives Saturday in Cuba for a three-day visit before traveling to U.S.

"It's a humanitarian gesture," cardinal says of Cuba's release of 3,522 prisoners

CNN  — 

Cuba will free 3,522 prisoners ahead of Pope Francis’ visit next week to the Caribbean island, the Cuban government announced Friday.

“It’s a humanitarian gesture; we have received many letters,” Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino told CNN in an interview.

The Catholic Church in Cuba gathered requests from prisoners’ families and submitted them to Cuban government officials to be considered for a mass pardon to mark the visit by the Pope, who arrives in Saturday in Cuba for a three-day visit before traveling to the United States.

“It’s due to the many years spent in prison, good behavior, declining state of health or family difficulties. These are the factors that are always considered and not the type of crimes,” Ortega said

In a statement published in the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma, the government said the prisoners would be released in the next 72 hours and included minors, people over the age of 60, prisoners in poor health and foreigners who would be repatriated to their home countries.

The Cuban government pardoned 299 prisoners before a 1998 visit by Pope John Paul II and 2,900 prisoners before the 2012 visit by Pope Benedict XVI.

The government said in its statement that no one who had committed crimes against state security, considered to be political prisoners by international human rights groups, would be released.

The statement also said prisoners convicted of murder, homicide, rape, sexual abuse of children, drug trafficking or the illegal killing of state-owned cattle were ineligible for pardons.