Cuba has agreed to release 52 political prisoners following negotiations with the Roman Catholic Church, marking the country's largest mass liberation of its kind in decades.
The deal was announced Wednesday, after a meeting between Cuban President Raul Castro and Havana's Roman Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal Jaime Ortega. Visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos was also present.
The communist government will allow five of the prisoners to leave Cuba almost immediately. Ortega said the remaining 47 will be freed in "a process that will take three or four months, starting now."
All the prisoners to be released make up the remaining activists, community organizers and journalists arrested during a March 2003 crackdown on dissent. A total of 75 people were taken into custody, but others have either been freed for health reasons, allowed exile in Spain or completed their term.
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, called the liberations "a surprise," but noted that the fight is not over.
"These liberations will not mean a significant improvement in the terrible situation of human rights that exists in Cuba," he said. "It's opening the prisons a little, and not to everyone."
Last month, the Catholic Church also helped in the freeing of Ariel Sigler, a paralyzed political prisoner who'd been serving a 25-year sentence for treason.