October 21, 2009 / 10:01 PM / 11 years ago

Freed Cuban calls for release of political prisoners

HAVANA (Reuters) - A day after his surprise release from prison, Cuban dissident Nelson Aguiar urged the government on Wednesday to free all political prisoners and said he was at one stage held in “Stone Age” conditions during his six years behind bars.

Aguiar, 64, told Reuters he was stunned that he was out of jail because he still had years to go on a 13-year sentence handed out in a 2003 government crackdown on dissidents.

“They never said they were going to free me. When they told me to collect my things, I thought I was moving to another prison,” he said in an interview at the Havana apartment he now shares again with wife Dolia Leal Francisco.

He thanked the Spanish government for helping to obtain his freedom, which followed a visit to communist-led Cuba by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.

Aguiar was one of 75 government opponents arrested and jailed in what became known as the Black Spring of 2003. In 1999 he founded a tiny political party known as the Orthodox Party, and continued running it from jail.

“I’ve worked only for my ideas,” he said.

Dressed in a green T-shirt, khaki pants and running shoes, Aguiar moved gingerly about his apartment, where the walls are adorned with photos, drawings and news clips of his imprisonment.

He called on Cuba’s government “to recognize its errors and little by little, if they can’t do it all at once, to continue freeing the prisoners of conscience.”

“They should be released quickly because they are innocent,” said his wife, who is one of the founders of the “Ladies in White,” a group of family members of political prisoners that holds a silent protest on Sundays in Havana.

During his six years behind bars, Aguiar developed a variety of health problems, which he attributed to brutal jail conditions, particularly in a prison in the southeastern city of Guantanamo.

For a year there, he said he lived in isolation in a small cell that had no light and no ventilation except for a hole where guards slid in his food. He said he would sleep next to the hole to catch the air for relief from the “enormous heat.”

A hole in the floor was his toilet, and his only water came from a small tube next to it. The conditions, he said, were like something from the Stone Age.

POLICY OF ENGAGEMENT

The 2003 crackdown on dissidents caused the European Union to impose diplomatic sanctions on Cuba. Last year, at the urging of Spain and others, the 27-nation EU lifted the sanctions and re-established cooperation with Cuba.

Moratinos met with Cuban President Raul Castro for three hours on Monday, during which time he said human rights were discussed “in general terms.”

When Aguiar was released on Tuesday, a Spanish diplomat said it was an affirmation of Spain’s policy of engaging with communist-ruled Cuba rather than seeking confrontation. Moratinos was criticized at home for not meeting with dissidents during his visit to Cuba.

In an August report, the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights estimated that Cuba had 208 political prisoners, including now 53 of the 75 jailed in 2003.

Cuba says dissidents are U.S.-aided traitors and that it has no political prisoners.

Now free, Aguiar seemed uncertain about his immediate future. He said he would continue his political activities, but at the same time said he wanted to go to Spain for back surgery.

More urgently, he needed to obtain an income, which may be problematic in Cuba, given his political baggage.

Prison life was difficult, but freedom is complicated.

“It’s not easy,” Aguiar said, using a common expression with which Cubans confront daily challenges in their lives.

Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Kieran Murray

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