HAVANA The Cuban government will release an ailing political prisoner on parole and move six others to jails closer to their homes this weekend in a humanitarian gesture promised to Cuba's Catholic leader, the church said on Friday.
The moves come ahead of a visit to Havana next week by Vatican Foreign Minister Dominque Mamberti, who is likely to press Cuba on its estimated 190 political prisoners in talks with Cuban leaders.
The transfers will bring to 12 the number of prisoners who have been moved closer to their families following May 19 talks between Cuban President Raul Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
Castro agreed to improve the conditions of some prisoners and release others, particularly those in ill health. Six were moved earlier this month.
The prisoner to be released, Ariel Sigler Amaya, is in ill health and currently being treated in a Havana hospital, the church said in a statement. The six other prisoners will be transferred starting on Saturday, it said.
Families of the jailed dissidents have complained that it was difficult to visit their loved ones in distant prisons.
Julia Nunez, whose husband Adolfo Fernandez was among those to be moved on Saturday, said she was "very excited" about the news. "Our goal is that they return to our homes, but this is a positive step," she told Reuters.
LADIES IN WHITE
One of the six to be moved this weekend was Hector Maceda, husband of Laura Pollan, leader of the dissident group "Ladies in White." She was not immediately available for comment.
Maceda was one of 75 dissidents arrested in a 2003 government crackdown. More than 50 of them remain in jail.
Their wives and mothers formed the "Ladies in White" group that has staged protest marches every Sunday in Havana since the crackdown.
When the government tried to stop their marches recently, Cardinal Ortega intervened and they were allowed to continue.
That led to the meeting with Castro and the current moves, which are similar to ones that have been made in the past by Cuba around the visits of Vatican dignitaries.
As many as 17 prisoners could end up being transferred closer to their homes.
At least 26 political prisoners are said to be in bad health. Their cause has been taken up by dissident Guillermo Farinas, who has staged a hunger strike since February 24, demanding their release.
Cuban leaders consider dissidents to be mercenaries working with the United States to topple the communist-led government.
(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; editing by Anthony Boadle)