Human rights group says Cuba has 60 political prisoners

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba’s leading human rights commission on Friday accused the government of having 60 political prisoners, a number the group acknowledges includes armed insurrectionists, hijackers and spies as well as peaceful political activists.

Cuba’s Communist government has said it has no political prisoners, and that opponents mistakenly consider armed counter-revolutionaries and common criminals as political cases.

In addition to the 60 behind bars, another 11 former political prisoners are out on parole and unable to leave Cuba.

The Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation report was the first since Cuba released 53 people in connection with secret negotiations with the United States that led to last December’s historic detente.

The Americans considered those 53 were political prisoners and their release was crucial to a deal in which the two longtime nemeses agreed to restore diplomatic relations.

The commission estimated 103 political prisoners in Cuba a year ago.

“There was a big reduction from last year because the government in Washington became involved in those 53 cases,” said Elizardo Sanchez, head of the commission.

The 60 current prisoners include seven armed anti-government infiltrators, about a dozen who hijacked or attempted to hijack a plane or boats to leave the country, four armed soldiers and a civilian collaborator who helped them try to desert, and others accused of violence or spying.

However, at least two dozen are being held on charges linked to peaceful political protests, according to the commission.

At least 13 belong to the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), the largest dissident organization. Another prisoner is artist Danilo Maldonado, alias “El Sexto,” awaiting trial on “disrespect” for painting “Fidel” and “Raul” on a pair of pigs in a satire of former President Fidel Castro and current President Raul Castro, the commission said.

Sanchez said some on his list committed violence but were denied due process or given excessive prison terms for political reasons.

“The great majority are prisoners because of their political position, for their views, for their convictions,” Sanchez said. “It’s true that there are no longer 15,000 political prisoners as there were 40 or 50 years ago. Before the repression was built on long prison sentences. Now it’s based on many more short-term detentions, a few days or hours. The form has changed.”

The commission also publishes a monthly report of temporary detentions against political activists. It said 641 people were detained and released in May.

Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Richard Chang