Cuba took the first steps toward releasing 52 political prisoners as the island's Catholic Church on Thursday notified five they would be freed soon in a deal struck with the Cuban government that drew praise from Washington.
The planned release prompted dissident Guillermo Farinas to end his 4-1/2-month-long hunger strike, sweeping aside a thorny issue that threatened Cuba's international relations.
The Church, asserting its new prominence in communist-led Cuba, said the five prisoners would be set free "in coming days" and allowed to go to Spain.
The other 47 are to be released over the next three to four months, the Church said.
All 52 prisoners are those still in jail from 75 arrested in a 2003 government crackdown that provoked wide condemnation of Cuba's human rights.
The prisoner release, first announced on Wednesday by the Church, raised hopes of improved relations with Europe and the United States and perhaps a shift in Cuba's policies toward dissidents.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the news.
"We were encouraged by the apparent agreement between the Roman Catholic Church and the authorities in Cuba for the release of 52 political prisoners," she told reporters.
"We think that's a positive sign. It's something that is overdue but nevertheless very welcome."
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who came to Cuba this week to participate in church-state talks, said on Wednesday he expected the release could lead to better relations with the European Union.
Dialogue betetr than confrontation
He has pushed for the 27-nation bloc to amend its common position emphasizing improved human rights and democracy before fully normalizing relations with the communist-led island and said the prisoner deal showed that dialogue was better than confrontation.
The Cuban government has not made an official statement about the prisoners, but the church's statement was published in Communist Party newspaper Granma.
There were mixed signals on whether the prisoners, once free, will have the option of staying in Cuba.
Spanish media reported that Moratinos said they would all go to Spain, then be allowed to go to other countries.
Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the leader of the Church in Cuba, told reporters on Wednesday the prisoners would go abroad after release "if they want to go."
"It's a proposal made to them," he said.
Many prisoners have said previously they refuse to leave Cuba.
The path to the planned release began on Feb. 23, when dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo died in a hunger strike for improved prison conditions.
His death prompted international condemnation of Cuba, which subsequently slightly relaxed its policies toward dissidents and began a dialogue with the Catholic Church.
President Raul Castro is struggling to pull Cuba out of a deep financial crisis and is said to want to end the political prisoner issue that has long complicated the island's exterior relations.
The government views dissidents as being in the pay of the United States to undermine the communist system.
Farinas, a 48-year-old psychologist and writer, added to Cuba's woes by launching his hunger strike on Feb. 24, demanding the release of ailing political prisoners who are included in the 52 to be freed.
After meeting with fellow dissidents from his hospital bed in the central city Santa Clara, he issued a statement saying he was "postponing" his strike, in its 135th day, but would resume if the government does not fulfill its pledge to release the prisoners.
He has been kept alive by intravenous feeding, but in recent days was said to be near death.
Despite Clinton's praise for the release, and the importance the United States has placed on freeing political prisoners, it was not clear how much it would help long-troubled U.S.-Cuba relations.
Efforts by President Barack Obama to temper hostilities, including a slight easing of the 48-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the island, have been sidetracked by Cuba's detention of U.S. contractor Alan Gross on suspicions of espionage.
The U.S. maintains that Gross, held since December, was only providing Internet access to Jewish groups and has said no significant steps toward Cuba will occur until he is free.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the government was still "very focused" on Gross' welfare. "We're going to continue using every diplomatic channel available to remind them this is a matter of great importance to us and we continue to call on his immediate release," he said.
Related news reports:Güncelleme Tarihi: 09 Temmuz 2010, 18:11