Church: Cuba Offers To Free 2 Prominent Dissidents

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HAVANA (AP) - Cuba agreed to release two prominent dissidents who have refused for months to accept exile in Spain, but one of the men quickly turned down the offer, telling his wife he would remain in jail until ailing prisoners are free and other demands are met.

The decision to free Hector Maseda and Eduardo Diaz was announced Friday by the Roman Catholic Church, which has spearheaded months of dialogue with President Raul Castro's government.

Diaz arrived at his home in the western city of Pinar del Rio shortly after the announcement, but Maseda's wife said her husband opted to stay in his cell - the second dissident to choose jail despite the government's willingness to free them on parole.

"Hector is not prepared to come out because he wants complete freedom or a pardon, and he wants them to allow the sick prisoners to leave," Laura Pollan told The Associated Press. "I feel very proud to be his wife, and that this is his attitude."

Pollan is a leader of the Ladies in White opposition group, comprising the wives and mothers of prisoners arrested in a 2003 crackdown on dissent. The group's members march peacefully through the streets of Havana each Sunday, demanding freedom for their loved ones.

The government pledged in July to release 52 nonviolent activists, social commentators and opposition leaders jailed since the crackdown. Forty-one of the prisoners were freed in the weeks after the decision, and all but one flew into exile in Spain, along with their families.

But the process stalled in recent months because those who remained refused to leave Cuban soil, and some pledged to continue calling for democratic change the moment they got out of jail.

The first breakthrough in the standoff came last week, when the church announced the release of dissidents Angel Moya and Guido Sigler, despite the fact that Moya refused to leave the island. Like Maseda, Moya also refused to leave prison, saying he would stay until other dissidents in poor health are free.

Sigler, who has indicated a desire to move to the United States, arrived at his home shortly after his release.

Cuban Roman Catholic Church spokesman Orlando Marquez announced the latest releases Friday, moments after the church announced the release of four other opposition prisoners arrested for violent crimes such as sabotage and hijacking. Those men all accepted exile.

Maseda, 67, was given a 20-year sentence for treason and other charges. Diaz was serving a 21-year term on similar charges.

Including Maseda and Moya, who have rejected their release, just nine prisoners of conscience from the 2003 roundup remain behind bars.

The Cuban government had no immediate comment. Authorities rarely acknowledge the dissidents, except to say that they are all common criminals and stooges paid by Washington to destabilize the island.

(This version CORRECTS that 9 total are still imprisoned, including the 2 who have refused release.)
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