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Six more Cuban prisoners to leave for Spain: Church

HAVANA (Reuters) - Six more political prisoners will leave Cuba in coming days as part of an agreement between the communist government and the Roman Catholic Church to free 52 detained dissidents, church authorities said on Friday.

The Archdiocese of Havana said the six would be transferred directly from prison to a plane where they would be united with their families and flown to Spain, following in the footsteps of 20 other prisoners released last month.

Cuban President Raul Castro agreed in June after meeting with Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega to free 52 dissidents who were among 75 imprisoned in 2003 in a crackdown against government opponents. The others had already been paroled.

The international community has applauded the prisoner releases, which followed months of intense criticism of the government after the death of a dissident hunger striker and the harassment of prisoners’ female relatives in Havana by government supporters.

Amnesty International says the 52 prisoners are among 53 it has identified as Cuban “prisoners of conscience.”

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who met with Castro and Ortega in June, has said Cuba plans to release all political prisoners eventually.

Ortega was recently in Washington where he met with top officials of President Barack Obama’s administration to discuss the prisoner releases and other Cuban issues. Washington, which maintains a 48-year-old trade embargo against Cuba, has called for Havana to free all political detainees.

Castro, in a speech to parliament earlier this month, said the release of the “counterrevolutionary prisoners” was a sovereign decision. He warned that dissidents would still be viewed as “traitors” and “mercenaries” in the pay of the United States and dealt with accordingly.

The 75 dissidents had been sentenced on charges they worked with the United States to subvert the one-party communist system enshrined in Cuba’s constitution.

“None of these citizens were imprisoned for their ideas as depicted by the brutal campaigns to discredit Cuba,” Castro said.

Since Castro replaced his ailing elder brother Fidel Castro as president in 2008, the number of political prisoners, before the most recent releases, had already fallen by about 50 percent, according to the illegal but tolerated Cuban Commission on Human Rights.

The group estimates there will still be 100 political prisoners on the island after the 52 are freed.

Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Peter Cooney