HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba will release 2,900 prisoners in the coming days for humanitarian reasons in a sweeping amnesty ahead of a visit next spring by Pope Benedict XVI, the Cuban government said on Friday.
Those to be pardoned do not include American Alan Gross, serving 15 years in prison for setting up Internet equipment on the island under a secretive U.S. program in a case that stalled progress in U.S.-Cuba relations, a government spokesman said.
The ruling Council of State granted the amnesty in a decision that President Raul Castro, in a separate speech to the National Assembly, said had "taken into account" the upcoming papal visit and requests by, among others, top Roman Catholic Church officials in Cuba and family members of the prisoners.
President Raul Castro said the ruling Council of State that granted the amnesty had "taken into account" the upcoming papal visit and requests by, among others, top Roman Catholic Church officials in Cuba and family members of the prisoners.
The action showed the "generosity and strength" of the Cuban revolution, he said in a speech to the National Assembly.
Those to be released included some who had been convicted for crimes against "the security of the state," but the government spokesman said they were not jailed for political reasons.
Cuba freed more than a 100 political prisoners in a deal brokered by the Catholic Church in 2010. Cuban dissidents have said there are still at least 60 people behind bars for political reasons.
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights, downplayed the importance of the prisoner release. "It's a shallow measure by the government, a gesture to improve its international image," he said.
The freed prisoners will include persons more than 60 years of age, prisoners who are ill, women and some young prisoners who had no previous criminal history, the government said.
Castro said 86 of the prisoners are foreigners from 25 countries who committed crimes in Cuba, but they would be released only if their countries agreed to repatriate them.
The U.S. State Department declined to comment on the amnesty and its failure to include Gross, but has repeatedly said in the past that he was only providing Internet access for Jewish groups in Cuba and should be released immediately.
Gross was working as a subcontractor in a U.S.-funded program promoting political change in Cuba. The Cuban government considered it subversive. His arrest halted a brief warming in U.S.-Cuba relations that have been hostile since Fidel Castro embraced Soviet Communism after his 1959 revolution.
Pope Benedict said recently he would visit Cuba before Easter, which falls on April 8. It would be the second papal visit to Cuba since Pope John Paul II's historic trip in 1998.
After that visit, in which the pontiff criticized the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, the Cuban government freed about 300 prisoners, including 101 political prisoners. The others were in jail for common crimes.
Minor prisoner releases have taken place over the years, usually as a goodwill gesture accompanying the visit of a dignitary such as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter or other foreign representatives.
Cuba freed 3,600 political prisoners after then Cuban leader Fidel Castro met with exiles in 1978 during Carter's presidency.
Many Cubans had expected President Castro to announce a liberalization of immigration rules that would make it easier for them to travel abroad, but he said only that it was being worked on and changes would be made gradually.
(Reporting by Jeff Franks; editing by Anthony Boadle)