Skip to main content

Jailed Cuban dissident released to serve house arrest

By David Ariosto, CNN
Click to play
Freed dissident talks with CNN
  • Darsi Ferrer to serve remainder of sentence under house arrest
  • Ferrer charged with illegally purchasing black-market cement for his house, activists tell CNN
  • Ferrer's release follows meeting between Cuban president, Vatican foreign minister
  • Cuba
  • Cuban Politics
  • Raul Castro

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Cuban authorities have released political activist Darsi Ferrer from prison after court officials waited almost a year to bring him to trial.

Ferrer, who had been awaiting charges for more than 11 months, left police custody on Tuesday to serve out the remaining four months of his sentence under house arrest.

"It means a lot to be back with my family and friends," Ferrer said, sitting next to his wife and 8-year-old son on his porch in Havana's Santos Suarez neighborhood. "The sad thing is to know about the people I left behind who are still suffering in Cuban prisons."

Ferrer's court proceeding this week was closed to reporters, but he and other human rights activists told CNN that Ferrer had been charged with illegally purchasing black-market cement for his house.

Government critics claim his arrest and imprisonment are excessive for a charge they say is a common practice, usually punishable by a fine.

"This is Cuba. Everything is purchased on the black market," said Cuban economist and dissident Oscar Espinosa Chepe. "It's where you go to buy your eggs and your milk." The Cuban government was not immediately available for comment but often strictly enforces even minor infractions of the law. Authorities have said that Cuba does not hold political prisoners.

"It's very emotional," said Ferrer's wife, Yusnaimy Jorge Soca. The couple, standing beside their son on a balmy afternoon in the Cuban capital, seemed relieved to be together after their near year-long separation.

Ferrer's release follows a recent meeting between Cuban President Raul Castro and Vatican Foreign Minister Dominique Mamberti. The Vatican official's visit came amid signs of growing influence by Cuba's Roman Catholic Church.

"The Cuban government does not respond to external pressure," said Phil Peters, Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute in Washington. "The church in Cuba is a Cuban institution, and it seems to have found a way to work with the government in a way that outside pressures have not."

Cuba's Roman Catholic cardinal, Jaime Ortega, recently described a rare four-hour meeting with President Castro as a "magnificent start" to talks surrounding the potential release of some of the island's jailed dissidents.

Earlier this month, the church announced that Cuba was releasing ailing prisoner Ariel Sigler, who had been jailed since a 2003 government crackdown on the island's political opposition.

"The church seems to be pressing the issue of human rights," Peters said. "And the Cuban government has not only accepted this dialogue, but has acknowledged to the public that it is willing to talk about prisoners."

Sigler's release drew praise from the U.S. State Department, which called it "a positive development." The two countries broke off diplomatic relations in 1961 but maintain interests sections in Havana and Washington that operate like embassies.

A series of transfers of prisoners to jails closer to their homes, and the recent release of Ferrer and Sigler, have raised questions of whether Cuba will continue to improve living conditions for its prisoners.

But U.S.-Cuba relations -- which garnered attention last week during migration talks in Washington -- appear at least in part stymied by the imprisonment of American contractor Alan Gross.

Gross, who had been working in Cuba for a Maryland-based U.S. subcontractor called Development Alternatives Inc., was arrested in Havana in December. He was jailed on suspicion of espionage.

The U.S. delegation has called for his immediate release.

This week also marked a development with Cuban dissident and long-time hunger striker, Guillermo Farinas, who was temporarily moved by ambulance to a hospital in Cienfuegos, according to a family source who asked not to be named.

Farinas had remained in a hospital in his hometown of Santa Clara following a hunger strike that he said he began in February to protest the imprisonment of the country's political activists.

The move to the Cienfuegos hospital was not considered urgent, the source said.

Farinas continues to remain in frail but stable condition and is soon expected to return to Santa Clara, it added.

The 48-year-old psychologist and writer said he stopped eating solid foods a day after jailed dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo died in prison following a prolonged hunger strike.

Zapata's death sparked international condemnation from Europe and Washington and drew a rare statement of regret from President Castro.