Sunday, May 23, 2010

Cuba to improve conditions of prisoners: source

Cuba's President Raul Castro attends a meeting of the National Assembly in Havana December 20, 2009. Credit: Reuters/Enrique De La Osa

Esteban Israel
HAVANA
Sat May 22, 2010 10:45pm EDT

(Reuters) - Cuba has agreed to move political prisoners held in far-off jails to facilities closer to their hometowns and transfer sick prisoners to hospitals, a dissident said on Saturday, following talks between Catholic Church leaders and President Raul Castro this week.

Guillermo Farinas, on a hunger strike for 88 days demanding ill prisoners be released, told Reuters in a telephone interview that he received the news from a bishop who visited him in the hospital where he is being fed intravenously.

A Catholic Church source, speaking on condition his name not be used, confirmed what Farinas said. "Everything appears that is what will happen," he said.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba Dionisio Garcia, who heads the Cuban Bishops' Conference, held a four-and-a-half-hour meeting with Castro in Havana on Wednesday which they both described as positive.

Farinas said Prelate Juan Dios Hernandez, the auxiliary bishop of Havana, brought him the message from Ortega after the cardinal was informed by the government that measures were being taken as agreed in the meeting.

"These are first the transfer of all the prisoners to their respective provinces of residence, and the transfer also of all sick prisoners to hospitals," Farinas said.

He said he was told a second meeting would be held next week toward "resolving the situation of the prisoners."

There was no immediate word from Cuban officials.

Wednesday's meeting was the Cuban Catholic Church leaders' first talks with Castro since he took over the presidency of the Communist-ruled island from his ailing elder brother Fidel Castro in 2008.

"The Church is interested in there being some kind of relief in the situation of the prisoners, which could include the freeing of some of them, and that is what we're talking about," Ortega said during a news conference on Thursday.

He said the subject was being discussed seriously, but neither he nor Garcia offered specific details of what steps the Cuban government might take over the political prisoners.

The cardinal added the talks would continue.

The rare meeting, which received wide coverage in the official media, followed Ortega's successful mediation between the Communist authorities and female relatives of imprisoned dissidents earlier this month hat allowed them to resume weekly marches without being harassed by government supporters.

The Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Dominique Memberti, is due to visit the island next month as Cuba is facing increasing economic difficulties and international attention on human rights abuses in the country.

Political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died in February after a hunger strike.

Memberti is expected to press authorities to release political prisoners whom the government brands as mercenaries and subversives in the pay of the United States.

Local human rights organizations put the number of political prisoners in Cuba at around 200, while Amnesty International says there are around 60 prisoners of conscience.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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