Cuban environmentalist 'prisoner of conscience' says free on parole

HAVANA (Reuters) - The Cuban environmentalist activist Ariel Ruiz Urquiola who was on a hunger strike to protest his sentencing to a year in jail for contempt of authorities said on Tuesday that he had been freed on parole after an unusually broad campaign for his release.

“Without the support, the pressure made, without the international help, my liberation would not have been possible,” Ruiz Urquiola said by telephone after being released from hospital. “They gave me an ‘extrapenal license’ for health reasons.”

Ruiz Urquiola was hospitalized because of his hunger strike. He said he had been treated with an intravenous drip and was now in good health and on his way home.

The Cuban government has not commented publicly on the case and did not reply to request for comment.

Amnesty International had called Ruiz Urquiola, who has a history of criticizing the government on environmental issues, a “prisoner of conscience” after he was sentenced on May 8 for calling two forest rangers “rural police.”

The organization, which campaigned for his release, has said the rangers interpreted this as “rural guards,” which has a negative connotation in Cuba, referring to officials from the dictatorship that preceded Fidel Castro’s 1959 leftist revolution.

Many Cuban alternative news outlets reported on his arrest, particularly after he went on the hunger strike three weeks ago and was sent to hospital.

Calls for his release using the hashtag #freeariel spread on social media, an unusual occurrence in a country where many Cubans often worry about publicly challenging the government.

Cuban troubadour Silvio Rodriguez, a staunch supporter of the Cuban revolution, also got involved, saying Ruiz Urquiola’s “case should be revised and given a better solution”.

Last week, the United States called for all “political prisoners” in Cuba to be released.

The U.S. State Department highlighted the cases of Ruiz Urquiola and Eduardo Cardet, a human rights activist and leader of the opposition Christian Liberation Movement.

Cuban dissidents have said they are often targeted by authorities and most often detained for hours or days.

“What has been surprising to me is that this crossed over from an issue important to only dissidents to one that includes an increasing number of more mainstream public figures and indie digital sites,” said Cuba expert Ted Henken at Baruch College in New York, author of several reports on the internet in Cuba and emergent independent media.

The Cuban government has maintained that it does not have political prisoners, and characterizes Cuba’s small but vocal dissident community as mercenaries on the payroll of the United States.

In June, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCHRN), a non-government group that monitors human rights and prisoners’ issues, put the number of political prisoners at around 120.

It said short-term detention of dissidents had been steadily declining for two years. It said there were 128 such arrests in May this year, compared with 373 last year and 724 in 2016, the year U.S. President Barack Obama made his historic trip to Havana.

Reporting by Nelson Acosta and Sarah Marsh; Editing by Toni Reinhold