Cuban political prisoners list dips to 167

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HAVANA (AP) — The number of political prisoners in Cuba continued a notable decline in the first half of 2010, the island’s top human rights monitor said Monday, meaning their ranks have dropped by nearly half since Raul Castro took power in 2006.

The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation said the government is using less long-term imprisonment and turning more to a strategy of quick arrests and releases to intimidate those who openly oppose its communist system.

It classed 167 inmates as political prisoners — a drop of 34 since January. But the commission documented 802 brief arrests for dissident activities or beliefs during that time, and said many activists are detained only long enough to keep from holding anti-government demonstrations.

The report said Cuba’s government has made “false promises of ‘structural and conceptual change'” while “systematically violating all civil, political, economic and some basic cultural rights.”

Still, there appears to be a concerted effort to reduce the island’s number of political prisoners. The commission counted 316 prisoners of conscience in July 2006, when Fidel Castro underwent emergency intestinal surgery and ceded power to his younger brother.

Commission director Elizardo Sanchez said by telephone the drop has less to do with a transfer of power between brothers, and more with the shift in tactics against organized dissent.

The new figure is likely the lowest since the 1959 revolution, which was followed by a roundup of officials of the toppled dictatorship, many of whom were quickly tried and executed.

Fidel Castro said Cuba held 15,000 political prisoners in 1964, but officials in recent years say none of their prisoners are held for political reasons — all for common crimes or for being paid “mercenaries” of U.S.-funded groups trying to overthrow Cuba’s government.

The island’s government refuses to recognize the commission, which is funded by international human rights groups, but largely allows it to work. Its biannual lists are used by Amnesty Intentional and others, though some of the prisoners it includes were convicted of violent acts, such as a string of hotel bombings in Havana in the 1990s.

Others are serving lengthy sentences on such charges as terrorism, disrespecting authority, resistance, threats and “pre-criminal dangerousness,” which allows authorities to jail dissenters because they believe have the potential to do something wrong.

In February, jailed dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after a long hunger strike, the first Cuban opposition figure to die after refusing food in nearly 40 years. The case drew international condemnation and prompted another opposition activist, Guillermo Farinas, to begin his own hunger strike.

Farinas is still refusing to eat and drink more than four months later, though he has received nutrients intravenously. He is hospitalized near his home in the central city of Santa Clara and the Communist Party newspaper Granma says that he has suffered a blood clot in his neck and could die at any time.

Tensions over Cuba’s human rights record softened somewhat, however, after the Roman Catholic Church reached an agreement in May with the government to transfer political prisoners held far from their families to facilities closer to home, and to provide improved medical treatment for those seriously ill.

Since then, authorities have transferred 12 political prisoners and released one for health reasons.

All were among the 75 opposition activists, community organizers and journalists jailed in a crackdown on dissent in March 2003 and charged with conspiring with Washington to destabilize Cuba’s political system.

U.S. officials joined those jailed in denying the charges.

Many hoped more prisoners could be transferred or freed after the June visit to Cuba by Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign minister, but none have so far. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos is headed to the island and said Monday he hopes “to get results” aimed at improving the plight of the remaining political prisoners.