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Cuba Frees 7 Political Prisoners into Exile

Cuba freed seven political prisoners on Monday and sent them and their families to exile in Spain - the start of a promised mass liberation of dissidents that once seemed unthinkable.

Omar Ruiz, who had been serving a 12-year sentence for treason, said he and six other former inmates were driven in a van to Havana's Jose Marti International airport, where they were reunited with relatives in a special waiting room. All were then escorted to an Air Europa flight bound for Madrid.

"We are, at this moment, walking to the plane," Ruiz told The Associated Press on his cell phone. "They brought us through the back of the airport."

Ruiz added, however, that "they're watching us."

"That's why I won't consider myself free until I arrive in Spain," he said.

The government of Raul Castro has pledged to free 52 Cubans who international human rights group say were jailed for their political beliefs. That process is expected to take three or four months and is part of a landmark deal last week between Cuban authorities and the island's Roman Catholic Church that was brokered by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.

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Spanish authorities have said that once the Cubans arrive, they will not be required to stay in Spain and will be free to head elsewhere.

The church says another 13 opposition activists and dissidents behind bars will go free soon. It was not known if subsequently released prisoners will be allowed to stay in Cuba or will be forced to go to another country. Both the U.S. and Chile have offered to grant them asylum, in addition to Spain.

Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said at least three prisoners asked Cardinal Jaime Ortega to leave them off the list of those headed to Spain because they want to remain in Cuba.

In the hours before the group of seven were escorted from prison to the airport, their relatives had been told to prepare to leave the island for good at a moment's notice.

"Sunday they performed medical checkups, did paperwork for the passports and told us to be ready starting today," said Irene Viera, wife of community organizer Julio Cesar Galvez, who had been serving a 15-year prison sentence.

"I'm very nervous about all of this," she said.

One relative, the sister of another political prisoner, began preparing for life outside Cuba by heading to the beauty parlor.

All of those Cuba has promised to free were among 75 opposition activists arrested in a sweeping state crackdown on dissent in March 2003, when the world's attention was focused on the start of the war in Iraq.

Cuba had accused them of taking money from Washington to destabilize the island's communist government - charges both those imprisoned and U.S. officials have denied. Of those, 23 had been previously freed, meaning that if Cuba's deal with the church holds, their numbers behind bars will fall to zero.

Before Monday's releases, Sanchez's commission said Cuba now holds 167 political prisoners - the lowest total since Fidel Castro took power on New Year's Day 1959. If the government keeps its promise, that total would drop by nearly a third to 115 and all but one of the inmates considered "prisoners of conscience" by Amnesty International and other human rights groups will have been released.

The single exception would be Rolando Jimenez, who Sanchez identified as a police official but Amnesty International says is a lawyer. He was arrested in April 2003 and is serving a 12-year sentence for disrespecting authority and "revealing secrets about state security police" after he publicly pledged support for the political prisoners arrested the previous month.

Some of the other prisoners still considered held for political reasons by Sanchez's commission were convicted of violent acts - including planting bombs in hotels in Havana that killed an Italian tourist in the 1990s.

The island's government says it holds no political prisoners and that all countries have the right to jail traitors. Authorities refuse to recognize Sanchez's independent, Havana-based commission but largely allow it to operate.

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