April 29, 2008 / 3:08 AM / 12 years ago

Cuba's Raul Castro commutes most death sentences

(Corrects recent executions to three from four in paragraph 8)

By Marc Frank

HAVANA, April 28 (Reuters) - New Cuban President Raul Castro announced on Monday that all death sentences had been commuted to prison terms of 30 years to life, with the exception of three people charged with terrorism.

"The Council of State decided to commute the death penalty imposed on a group of prisoners," Raul Castro announced at a Communist party Central Committee meeting, in a speech broadcast by state-run television.

Castro said two Central Americans charged with hotel bombings in the 1990s that took the life of an Italian tourist, and a Cuban American charged with murder during an attempt at armed infiltration of the island, were not included and their cases were still on appeal.

"This does not mean we have eliminated the death penalty from the penal code," Raul Castro said.

He blasted the United States for allowing Cuban Americans to use its soil to launch violent attacks on the country.

"It would be irresponsible and ingenuous to renounce the the dissuasive power that capital punishment has on the real terrorists, the Imperialist mercenaries," he said.

Cuba has been under pressure from human rights organizations to eliminate the death penalty, which is carried out by firing squad.

Just three people have been executed since 2000, all of them involved in a failed 2003 boat hijacking.

"This decision was not undertaken because of pressure, but as a sovereign act in line with the humanitarian and ethical conduct that has characterized the Cuban revolution from the start," he said.

Since taking over from his ailing brother Fidel Castro in February, Raul Castro has lifted a number of restrictions on daily life, from owning cell phones to entering tourist hotels.

Cuba in early March signed two important United Nations human rights agreements long opposed by Fidel Castro.

The elder Castro, 81, underwent intestinal surgery in July 2006 from which he has never fully recovered, leading him to resign as president this year after almost half a century in power. (Additional reporting by Esteban Israel; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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