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Cuba: We Will Free 52 Political Prisoners

Cuba's Roman Catholic Church said Wednesday that the communist government has agreed to free 52 political prisoners and allow them to leave the country in what would be the island's largest mass liberation of prisoners of conscience in decades.

Five would be released in a matter of hours and planned to head to Spain, while the remaining 47 would be liberated in "a process that will take three or four months starting now," according to the statement by the office of Havana's Roman Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

Its a tremendous victory for the Catholic Church and for the Ladies in White -- relatives of the original 75 prisioners dating back to 2003, reports CBS News' Portia Siegelbaum in Havana.

Laura Pollen, leader of the Ladies in White told CBS News that while she remains skeptical of the news since the government has tricked her in the past.

Her husband, Hector Maceda, was not on the list of five who are reportedly to be freed.

The deal was announced following a meeting between President Raul Castro and Ortega. Also participating was visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez.

The scope of the agreement "is a surprise," said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation. "We were hoping for a significant release of prisoners, but not this."

Ortega's office said that those to be released were all members of a group of 75 leading political opposition activists, community organizers and journalists who report on Cuba in defiance of state controls on media. They were rounded up in a crackdown on dissent in March 2003.

Some had previously been freed for health reasons or after completing their terms, or were allowed into exile in Spain. But at least 52 have remained behind bars — most serving lengthy prison terms on charges of conspiring with Washington to destabilize Cuba's political system.

Its a tremendous victory for the Catholic Church and for the Ladies in White -- relatives of the original 75 prisioners dating back to 2003, reports CBS News' Portia Siegelbaum in Havana.

The Church has gained unprecidented recognition from the Castro Government since President Raul Castro first met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega in June.

The Ladies in White, who have attended mass and then held a protest march demanding the release of these prisoners every Sunday for the past seven years, have achieved an amazing victory by winning the right to stage public demonstrations, gaining the support of the Catholic Church, and third and finally surviving to see the release of their loved ones.

Church official Orlando Marquez said that by the cardinal's count, only 52 prisoners were left imprisoned from that group. But Sanchez said there were actually 53 still behind bars and that one, a former police official named Rolando Jimenez, had been left off Wednesday's list.

He also said it was not clear which five inmates would be freed immediately, adding that "the forced exile in Spain" that awaits them is not the same as unconditional freedom.

"These liberations will not mean a significant improvement in the terrible situation of human rights that exists in Cuba," said Sanchez, whose Havana-based commission is not recognized — but largely tolerated — by Cuba's government, which officially brooks no organized opposition.

"It's opening the prisons a little, and not to everyone," he said.

But others cheered the news including Sarah Stevens, head of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas, which supports lifting the United States' 48-year-old trade embargo against the island.

"This is joyful news for the prisoners and their families, a credit to the Cuban Catholic Church," she said in a statement, "and a lesson for U.S. policy makers that engagement — talking to the Cubans with respect — is accomplishing more, right now, than the embargo has accomplished in 50 years."

Indeed, the Catholic Church has recently become a major political voice in Cuba, though only with the consent of the Castro government.

The cardinal and another church leader subsequently met with Castro for four hours. Church officials then announced the government would transfer political prisoners to jails closer to their families and give better access to medical care for inmates who need it. That led to 12 transfers last month, and freedom for paraplegic Ariel Sigler.

Those discussions apparently laid the groundwork for Wednesday's large-scale agreement.

It appeared to cast some doubt on the future of Guilermo Farinas, an opposition activist and freelance journalist who has refused food and water since February to demand freedom for dozens of political prisoners, all among the 75 imprisoned in 2003.

He said by phone from the hospital in the central city of Santa Clara, where he has received nutrients intravenously, that he would continue his hunger strike and was prepared to go until he dies. Cuba's state-controlled media has reported he recently suffered a potentially fatal blood clot in his neck.

Fidel Castro said Cuba held 15,000 political prisoners in 1964, but officials in recent years say none of their prisoners are held for political reasons — all for common crimes or for being paid "mercenaries" of U.S.-funded groups trying to overthrow Cuba's government.

According to a report released this week by the island's leading human rights group, the number of Cuban political prisoners has fallen to 167, the lowest total since Fidel Castro took power on New Year's Day 1959 — but that tally included those now set to be released as part of Wednesday's agreement.

"There are more than 100 remaining prisoners and we don't see any in this agreement," he said. "The government of Cuba should free all political prisoners in Cuba."

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