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Cuba frees political prisoner jailed in dissent crackdown

HAVANA – Cuba has freed one of the 54 political prisoners still behind bars following a state crackdown on dissent six years ago and also paroled a Spanish businessman awaiting trial for bribery, officials in Spain and a Cuban political opposition group said yesterday.

The moves appear to be gestures of goodwill on the heels of a visit by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos – though a top Cuban dissident accused Cuban leaders of using political prisoners as political bargaining chips.

Nelson Alberto Aguiar Ramirez had been sentenced to 13 years in prison for treason, but he was released and picked up by his wife early yesterday, according to Laura Pollan, a founding member of the ‘Ladies in White’ support group for the wives and relatives of those arrested during the 2003 crackdown.

In Madrid, meanwhile, Spain’s Foreign Ministry confirmed Cuban authorities freed Pedro Hermosilla, a Spanish businessman jailed about a month ago on charges of offering payoffs to officials. He will not be allowed to leave the country pending trial.

Moratinos spent two days in Cuba and met for nearly three hours with President Raul Castro. He caused a stir by refusing to see dissidents, though Moratinos said that he brought up the subject of human rights with Cuba’s president and that Spain will continue to push the communist government on the issue after it assumes the revolving presidency of the European Union on Jan. 1.

Spain’s foreign minister asked Castro about Hermosilla’s case and his office said it considers the businessman’s provisional release a positive gesture.

Speaking to reporters upon his return to Spain, Moratinos said releasing the prisoners was ‘a new example’ of increasingly warm relations between his country and Cuba.

Aguiar Ramirez and 74 other political opposition leaders, activists and independent journalists were arrested on charges of conspiring with Washington to topple Cuba’s government, accusations both the U.S. and Cuban dissidents denied.

The group was imprisoned in March 2003, just days after the U.S. led an invasion of Iraq and the world’s attention focused on that war, a period Cuban dissidents call the ‘Black Spring.’

Aguiar Ramirez becomes the 22nd of the so-called ‘Group of 75’ to be freed. Others were granted conditional parole for health reasons, completed shorter sentences or were released into forced exile in Spain.

Pollan said ‘the Ladies in White are very happy Nelson was freed,’ but that her group believes his release has more to do with political posturing than anything Moratinos said or did while in Cuba.

‘I think we can’t thank Moratinos, because this was definitely the Cuban government playing politics, offering gifts and trading our family members as if they were bargaining chips,’ Pollan said.

Pollan, whose husband Hector Maseda was sentenced to 20 years in prison, said ‘the Cuban government has held our relatives hostage and made them coins to be traded.’

The communist government severely limits freedom of speech and assembly and controls all newspapers, radio and television stations. Blogs critical of the state are often blocked and the government tolerates no official political opposition to its single-party system, though it allows some independent groups such as Havana’s Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation to operate.

That organization reported in August that Cuba is holding 206 political prisoners, a tally that included Aguiar Ramirez. Its director, Elizardo Sanchez, said by phone yesterday that his country remains ‘an enormous gulag.’

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