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Cuba to free more prisoners, human rights leader says

By David Ariosto, CNN
  • Nine prisoners are reportedly in talks to be freed
  • Some of the men have been behind bars for as many as 10 years
  • Many were convicted of violent crimes

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Cuba is set to further empty its jails, adding at least another nine inmates to a list of those it plans to free, a human rights leader said Monday.

Head of the island's independent Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, Elizardo Sanchez, said another nine prisoners -- many of whom were convicted of violent crimes -- recently met with Interior Ministry officials to discuss their freedom and exile.

"This is all positive," said Sanchez. "But we are looking for their unconditional freedom."

Recently released prisoners have all left for either Spain or Chile, though it is unclear if they are permitted to stay or are instead compelled to leave the country.

Sanchez said the men, some who have been behind bars for as many as 10 years, were asked to identify the names of eight family members that they would be allowed to bring with them into exile.

"These are not prisoners of conscience," Sanchez said, distinguishing the nine men from a group of political activists rounded up in a state crackdown on internal dissent in 2003. "But they are political prisoners," he added.

The nine inmates, many of whom engaged in crimes that range from hijacking and piracy to terrorism, would join 52 so-called "prisoners of conscience" Cuba pledged to free following a deal brokered by the island's Roman Catholic Church and Spain's Foreign Ministry.

International pressure grew when one jailed dissident, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died earlier this year following a prolonged hunger strike protesting inmate living conditions.

The Cuban government responded by promising to free the group by November in the largest release of political prisoners in more than a decade.

To date, some 36 of the 52 jailed dissidents have been freed. But the total number of dissidents behind bars remains unclear.

Amnesty International, a human rights organization banned from operating in Cuba, says only one dissident will remain in prison following the groups' release.

But Sanchez claims that more than one hundred political prisoners are still behind bars, enduring what he described as long and politically-motivated prison sentences for what he acknowledges are legitimate convictions.

The Cuban government has not commented on the possible inmate release.