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Cuba to release 3,522 prisoners before Pope Francis' visit to island

CORRECTS HOW MANY POPES HAVE VISITED CUBA - A woman prays next to a photo of Pope Francis before a procession honoring the Virgin of Regla in the town of Regla, across the bay from Havana, Cuba, Monday, Sept. 7, 2015. Pope Francis will visit Cuba on his way to the United States in September 19, making him the third Pontiff to visit the island nation. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

CORRECTS HOW MANY POPES HAVE VISITED CUBA - A woman prays next to a photo of Pope Francis before a procession honoring the Virgin of Regla in the town of Regla, across the bay from Havana, Cuba, Monday, Sept. 7, 2015. Pope Francis will visit Cuba on his way to the United States in September 19, making him the third Pontiff to visit the island nation. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Cuba's highest authority says it is releasing 3,522 prisoners ahead of Pope Francis visit next week, making it the largest release since the 1959 revolution.

The Council of State announced in state media Friday morning that the prisoners to be freed include a mix of women, people younger than 20, inmates suffering from illnesses and people whose terms were coming to an end next year.

"On the occasion of the visit by His Holiness Pope Francis, the Council of State of the Republic of Cuba [the highest governmental body]... agreed to pardon 3,522 prisoners chosen due by the nature of the acts for which they were jailed, their behavior in prison, the time of punishment and health concerns," the state-run newspaper Granma said.

The government will not release people convicted of serious crimes like murder, child sexual abuse or violations of state security. The final category often means they are political prisoners jailed for speaking out against the government.

The government says the group, expected to be released on Sunday, includes some foreigners whose home countries have agreed to repatriate them.

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While it’s a large prisoner release, the freeing of prisoners before a papal visit is not without precedent in Cuba.

On December 28, 2011, Raúl Castro's government pardoned 2,991 prisoners before Pope Benedict visited the island in March 2012. Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro also freed a number of prisoners about a month after the visit of John Paul II, in January 1998.

Pope Francis is expected to spend three days in Cuba, beginning Sept. 19th, and may meet with Fidel Castro if the former Cuban leader is in good health.

U.S. and Cuba renewed diplomatic relations late last year, and dozens of political prisoners have been jailed since then.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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