Paralyzed Cuban political prisoner wins permission to leave island, headed to US next week

HAVANA (AP) — A recently freed Cuban political prisoner has won permission to immigrate to the United States and plans to leave next week, his brother said Thursday.

Ariel Sigler, a 44-year-old who is paralyzed from the waist down, was released to his home in Matanzas province in June as part of a deal between the government of President Raul Castro and Cuba's Roman Catholic Church.

He obtained a U.S. visa quickly, and this week was given permission by Cuban authorities to leave the country, Sigler's brother, Juan Francisco, said by phone. His U.S. visa is only for him, meaning no family members will be allowed to come — at least not immediately.

Sigler plans to leave July 28, his brother said. He said Sigler does not yet know if he will stay in the U.S. for good or could one day return to Cuba.

Sigler was among 75 leading opposition activists rounded up in March 2003 — when the world's attention was focused on the start of the Iraq war — and charged with taking money from Washington to destabilize Cuba's government. Those imprisoned denied that, as did U.S. officials.

His release came shortly before Cuba agreed on July 7 to release 52 more political prisoners, a landmark deal that, if completed, would empty island jails of all 75 Cubans arrested during the crackdown seven years ago.

Cuba has released 15 additional prisoners as part of the second agreement with the church, and five more were set to be freed at any time. So far, all of those have been sent, along with their families, to exile in Spain. It will likely take months before all 52 are freed.

Sigler served more than seven years of a 25-year sentence for treason. He went to prison a boxer in excellent shape, but paralysis that occurred while behind bars requires him to use to a wheelchair.