Cuban human rights group wants 69 political prisoners paroled, despite violent crimes of many

HAVANA (AP) — Cuba's leading domestic human rights group called on the government Thursday to release 69 inmates it says are being held for political reasons, arguing that they should be eligible for parole after serving at least half their sentences.

The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation acknowledged that at least 43 of those were convicted of violent crimes — including murder, shootings and boat hijackings — but said it considers them political prisoners anyway.

At least seven, meanwhile, were convicted of "pre-criminal dangerousness," a charge that can apply to things such as publicly insulting Fidel Castro or holding peaceful street marches.

The commission's statement comes after a recent analysis by The Associated Press revealed that many of those on its political prisoners list would not fit traditional international definitions of prisoners of conscience.

Who exactly is a political prisoner, who is not, and who is doing the counting are issues that have intensified since July 7, when the government promised Roman Catholic Church officials it would release 52 political prisoners.

So far, authorities have freed 20 and packed them off to Spain with their families. The remaining releases are expected to take months, and it's unclear if those freed subsequently will be allowed to remain in Cuba or sent into exile.

If the deal holds, it would empty prisons of all of the 75 leading opposition activists who were rounded up and sentenced to lengthy prison terms in March 2003 — a crackdown known in human rights circles as the "Black Spring."

But while the number of inmates held for political reasons is already at a historic low since Castro took power in 1959, the government's pledge to the church does not go far enough for the commission, which says about 101 will remain jailed for political reasons.

Of those, 69 have served at least half of their sentences and should be paroled immediately, according to commission director Elizardo Sanchez. He said in a statement that all 69 have been "classified extra-judicially as 'counterrevolutionary prisoners.'"

The Cuban government had no comment Thursday, and generally dismisses those who publicly criticize its communist system as paid agents of Washington and anti-Castro groups in Florida.

Indeed, President Raul Castro made it clear that the prisoner release it promised the church would not be a sign of more leniency toward opposition groups in the future, telling parliament last weekend, "There will not be impunity for the enemies of the homeland."

Authorities tolerate no organized opposition and refuse to recognize the commission, but they largely allow it to operate out of Sanchez's home in Havana.

Sanchez, himself a former political prisoner, compiles a biannual list of Cubans held for their political beliefs that is cited by human rights groups worldwide. Still, getting everyone to agree on just who is a political prisoner is impossible.

Cuba says it holds none. If all 52 inmates covered by the church agreement are released, Amnesty International would count just one remaining "prisoner of conscience:" attorney Rolando Jimenez, who is among the 69 that Sanchez's group says ought to be paroled.

New York-based Human Rights Watch, by contrast, fears "hundreds" of jailed Cubans are actually political prisoners.