Church says Cuba freeing 7 political prisoners

Cuba's government has agreed to free seven more prisoners, the Roman Catholic Church announced Saturday. Six convicted of crimes against state security are bound for Spain, but a political prisoner who was freed said he plans to remain on the island and return to the independent reporting that led to his arrest.

The releases continue a slow stream of prisoners who have been freed recently at the behest of the church, with most of them quickly sent into exile.

But the new releases also included one of the men who has refused exile: Ivan Hernandez, an independent journalist who was among 75 people arrested in a major crackdown on dissidents in 2003. The inmates who have vowed to remain in Cuba have been the last to leave prison.

"Yesterday the cardinal (Jaime Ortega) told me of my release and this morning they brought me home," Hernandez told The Associated Press by telephone from his home in Matanzas, 85 miles (140 kilometers) east of the capital.

He said he was given conditional liberty, but decided "to remain in my country to continue the same activities of independent journalist that I did before I was detained."

He said he was in good health, though feeling stress, and he thanked the church for its help. "I have faith that this process will continue until all are freed," he said of the remaining dissidents.

The archbishop's office said the other six are Roger Cardoso, Yoan Jose Navalon, Yosnel Batista, Juan Antonio Bermudez, Marco Antonio Zayas and Reinier Concepcion.

Bermudez was serving four years for attacks and causing damage, while Zayas and Conception faced eight years in prison for terrorism, according to the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which keeps a list of political detainees.

Commission President Elizardo Sanchez said that Cardoso was serving a 20-year sentence, while Navalon and Batista had been sentenced to prison for piracy — a category that often includes seizure of boats by people trying to leave the island.

Hernandez, 39, had been serving a 25-year sentence.

The government swept up 75 dissidents in 2003 and sentenced them to lengthy prison terms for allegedly working with the U.S. government to undermine Cuba's communist system. They deny the government's allegations they are foreign agents.

Fifty-two of the group remained behind bars when the church announced last year that the government had promised to free the rest.

Most were sent to Spain with a few relatives, but a small group has refused to leave Cuba, and their releases have been delayed.

Last week, however, the government freed Angel Moya and Hector Maseda, whose wives had crusaded for their release as part of the Ladies in White group that staged weekly demonstrations in Havana. They said they would remain in Cuba and, in fact wanted to remain in prison until other, ailing dissidents were released or they were exonerated. Officials tossed them out of jail anyway.

Only six of the original 75 remain.

Cuban authorities also have released the mother of a dissident who died last year after a long hunger strike. Reina Luisa Tamayo said Saturday that police held her for 12 hours at a station in her hometown of Banes. She says her husband Jesus Ortiz also was held.

Tamayo's son Orlando Zapata died last Feb. 23 after an 83-day hunger strike. He was imprisoned for disrespecting authority.

Cuban police often haul in dissidents and their families, usually allowing them to go free within hours or days.

Tamayo said she and 13 relatives have been given documents to go to the United States as political refugees. She said they still await Cuban paperwork.

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.