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Cuba to release 3 more political prisoners, Catholic Church says

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • When they are set free, 39 prisoners will have been released since July
  • The Spanish government and the Catholic Church brokered the deal
  • The dissidents were jailed in a 2003 government crackdown

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Cuba's Roman Catholic Church on Monday announced the names of three more political prisoners soon to be released from jail, raising the total number to 39 following a deal brokered by church leaders and Spain's Foreign Ministry back in July.

Horacio Julio Pina Borrego, Fidel Suarez Cruz and Alfredo Felipe Fuentes, are expected to be released soon and transferred to Spain.

It is unclear if they will be permitted to stay in Cuba if they choose to.

The three men are a part of a larger group of 52 jailed dissidents imprisoned during a government round-up of political opposition leaders in 2003.

International pressure to free them grew when one prisoner died earlier this year following a prolonged hunger strike.

The Cuban government responded in July by promising to release the group over the next three to four months in the largest release of political prisoners in over a decade.

Amnesty International, a U.K.-based human rights group banned from operating in Cuba, has indicated that only one political prisoner will remain behind bars after thre other dissidents have been released.

Others, like the head of Cuba's unofficial Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, Elizardo Sanchez, claim that the number of jailed dissidents is still over one hundred.

Sanchez has acknowledged that many of those remaining in jail have been convicted of violent crimes.

Meanwhile, the Cuban government has stayed focused on its own campaign to free five Cuban agents, convicted of spying in the United States and imprisoned since 1998.

In Cuba, they're considered heroes, fighting to protect the homeland from extremists in Miami.

There are no indications that any talks about a trade-off are underway between Havana and Washington, but some Cuban officials have pointed to the recent swap of Russian and American spies as evidence that there may be a possibility.

Monday's announcement also comes on the heels of notable changes in the country's bloated state sector.

According to guidelines published in the country's state-run daily newspaper, Granma, the government has opened up seven new private sector categories in which Cubans are permitted to work.

That announcement came as the island nation moves to shed half a million state jobs and provide free-market alternatives for its workers.

Critics have cautioned against predictions of a broader economic opening on Communist island.

Still, the country's continued release of political prisoners has sparked questions over whether recent actions will improve dialogue with its longtime adversary to the north -- the United States, which has maintained a near-half century trade embargo that Cuba often blames for its economic woes.

CNN's Shasta Darlington contributed to this report.