August 12, 1999

INTERVIEW--Cuba seen mulling new prisoner releases

By Andrew Cawthorne

HAVANA, Aug 12 (Reuters) - President Fidel Castro's government is considering another release of political prisoners before the upcoming Ibero-American Summit in Havana, according to Cuba's most prominent local rights' activist.

Elizardo Sanchez, who heads an independent human rights' group, said there are concrete signs that authorities are preparing releases similar to those which followed Pope John Paul II's visit in January 1998.

``We infer and predict a possible major release, of at least dozens of political prisoners, before the (November) summit,'' said the president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation in an interview late Wednesday.

Sanchez predicted that the releases would come in September or October.

Citing information from families and lawyers in provincial Cuba, Sanchez said that officials were transferring prisoners to new locales, doing medical checks, interviewing inmates on their future plans and sending files to Havana.

``These signs are similar to those we received just after the pope's visit last year, and that was followed by a significant number of releases,'' Sanchez said.

More than 100 political prisoners were included last year among several hundred inmates freed as a goodwill gesture after the pontiff's groundbreaking trip to the island.

Moderate dissident groups estimate there are still more than 350 political prisoners in jails across Cuba.

There was no official word of possible new releases.

Havana denies it holds prisoners for political reasons. It also rejects the word ``dissident,'' saying government critics are generally mercenaries and traitors backed and funded by Cuba's arch-enemy, the United States.

Sanchez said a new release before the summit would likely include some or all of the so-called Group of Four, the best known jailed dissidents.

The four were convicted of sedition in a closed-door trial in March, and sentenced to between three-and-a-half and five years in prison.

They were arrested in July 1997 after putting out a anti-government tract called ``La Patria es de Todos'' (The Fatherland Belongs to All) and holding news conferences to criticise the ruling Communist Party and to urge political and economic reforms.

Cuba says they received material backing from the United States, and accused them of urging an election boycott, intimidating foreign investors, contacting anti-Castro exile groups and inciting Cubans abroad to make financial remittances conditional on change.

Another batch of releases soon would demonstrate, Sanchez argued, both that the government believed it had less need for political prisoners, and had ``a desire to send a positive signal'' to the world.

``The government, very belatedly in my opinion, after four decades has realised it does not need so many political prisoners because the nation works like a big prison,'' he said bitterly.

With powerful security services, and tight social control, ``a few dozen more opposition people in the streets is no danger for the government,'' he said. ``Keeping them in prison results in a lot of criticism from the international community.''

One of the four, Martha Beatriz Roque, 53, began a fast several weeks ago -- consuming only liquids -- and has also refused to speak to officials, according to relatives. She has appealed her conviction and is fasting to demanding a response.

09:10 08-12-99

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited