Cuba releases artist 'El Sexto,' considered prisoner of conscience

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba on Tuesday released a graffiti artist whom Amnesty International had considered a prisoner of conscience and Cuban dissidents had celebrated as a touchstone case as he was jailed over a satire of Fidel and Raul Castro.

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Danilo Maldonado, 32, best known as “El Sexto” (The Sixth), was held for 10 months for “disrespect of the leaders of the revolution” for painting “Fidel” and “Raul” on the backs of a pair of pigs in apparent reference to former leader Fidel Castro and his brother and current president, Raul Castro, Amnesty International said.

Amnesty in September declared Maldonado the country’s only prisoner of conscience but said it was considering other cases.

Government officials “don’t have a sense of humor,” Maldonado told reporters after his release. “The crazy thing is, the show didn’t even happen and look at the repercussion it had.”

Police discovered the animals in the trunk of Maldonado’s taxi before he intended to display them in a Christmas Day art show.

The Cuban government maintains it does not have any political prisoners and characterizes Cuba’s small but vocal dissident community as mercenaries paid by U.S. interests to destabilize the government.

Dissidents had made Maldonado’s case a rallying cry. The government never commented on it.

Raul Castro and President Barack Obama surprised the world last Dec. 17 by announcing the two former Cold War foes would end decades of confrontation and seek to restore diplomatic ties.

In conjunction with detente, Cuba released 53 prisoners who Washington had considered political, but Maldonado was detained eight days after the historic announcement.

The dissident Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation estimates there are about 60 political prisoners in Cuba, including some two dozen held for peaceful acts of political protest.

“Now I am going to try to recover my energy and be with my daughter,” Maldonado told Reuters by telephone upon his release. “I want to travel to the United States in the future and thank all the people who supported the cause to have me freed.”

Amnesty International welcomed Maldonado’s release but said he never should have been jailed in the first place.

“Peacefully expressing an opinion is not a crime,” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Daniel Trotta, Chris Reese, G Crosse and Leslie Adler