Cuba urged at U.N. to release political prisoners

(Adds invite to U.N. torture investigator in 9th para, French appeal on ICRC prison visits in 10th para)

GENEVA, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Cuba was challenged on Thursday by Western countries to release its political prisoners and allow full freedom of expression, but allies including Russia and China closed ranks with the Communist country.

Cuba was in the dock at the United Nations Human Rights Council, which began regular reviews of all U.N. members last June in a bid to avoid charges of selectivity.

The United States, mired in a four-decade-old feud with Cuba, did not address the forum during the one-day review.

But Britain, Canada and Israel -- all close U.S. allies -- raised the issue of political prisoners and prison conditions in Cuba. Havana's backers praised its human rights record, some blaming the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo for any shortcomings.

"Cuba's delegation has come to defend the truth. We are open to dialogue," Justice Minister Maria Esther Reus Gonzalez told the Geneva forum.

"All we ask is to be given full respect and objectivity which should be the hallmark of this process."

Cuba had a system of "participatory democracy" which recognises freedoms of religion and opinion, Reus said.

Its prison system meets at least minimum standards, she said, adding: "Inmates can present complaints or petitions to authorities."

Cuba had recently invited the U.N. special investigator on torture, Manfred Nowak, to visit this year, she noted.

France called for Cuba to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to make regular visits to detainees. The neutral humanitarian agency last visited a Cuban-run prison in 1989, according to an ICRC spokesman.

Israeli ambassador Aharon Leshno Yaar questioned the Cuban judiciary's independence and urged Havana to release "unlawfully imprisoned human rights defenders, journalists, and others".

Canada, in turn, recognised a decline in the number of political prisoners on the island.

"However, approximately 200 political activists who engaged in peaceful dissent remain imprisoned. Canada recommends Cuba unconditionally release all remaining political prisoners and allow them to reintegrate fully into their communities without prejudice," Gwyn Kutz, a senior Canadian diplomat, said.

Britain's ambassador Peter Gooderham said that more than 50 people were still imprisoned among 75 opponents jailed in a 2003 political crackdown ordered by former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

"We are concerned about the conditions under which they are held and that some are in poor health," he said.

Omar Pernet Hernandez was among the 75 detainees in Cuba who received sentences of up to 28 years, but he was freed on health grounds a year ago after a deal with Spain.

Addressing reporters in Geneva on Thursday, Pernet said that during his earlier jail terms, he saw inmates buried up to their armpits in sugar cane plantations where they were forced to work for 24 hours at a time.

Despite such allegations, Cuba has enjoyed wide support in the 47-member Human Rights Council, which dropped its special investigator into human rights abuses by the communist-run government in June 2007.

The Obama administration is reviewing its policy towards the Council, which the Bush administration had essentially boycotted since last June citing its "rather pathetic record".

Editing by Michael Roddy