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Castro's amnesty doesn't cover all

Only a small quota of released inmates are political prisoners, say dissidents

Just days after Cuban President Raúl Castro announced an amnesty for about 2,900 inmates, Cuban human rights activists have complained that the communist leader's gesture was more cosmetic than significant because most political prisoners are still being held behind bars.

Only five people considered political prisoners have been released, says the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN).

Three other dissidents, who carried out peaceful street protests this year in Havana, are still being held in maximum security facilities, according to CCDHRN president Elizardo Sánchez.

Another prisoner who also won't see freedom under Castro's amnesty is Alan Gross, a US government subcontractor who was jailed two years ago after he was caught by Cuban authorities handing out communications equipment, including computers and shortwave radios.

On Wednesday, Cuba publicized the names of the inmates who received amnesty in the official state gazette.

"There are still at least 66 prisoners jailed for political reasons of which 16 have special furloughs that allow them to spend their nights at home," said Sánchez of the Havana-based CCDHRN, an organization that is illegal but tolerated by the Cuban government.

On Friday, Castro announced that he would be releasing the prisoners - most of them common criminals - as a goodwill gesture ahead of next year's visit to Cuba by Pope Benedict XVI.

"Not included in this pardon, with very few exceptions, are individuals convicted of crimes of espionage, terrorism, murder, homicide, drug trafficking, pederasty with violence, rape and corruption of minors and robbery with violence in inhabited homes," Castro said. "However, certain individuals convicted of crimes against the security of the state, who have completed a large portion of their prison terms with good behavior, will be released."

Among those released, says Sánchez, are Carlos Martínez Ballester, who was arrested in 2007 and sentenced to 15 years for divulging state secrets, and Augusto Guerra Márquez, who was arrested in 2006 for terrorism and sentenced to six years.

Castro said that he would also "release women, sick individuals, those over 60 years of age and also young people who have raised their education levels and possibilities of social reintegration." But Sánchez complained that three peaceful dissidents, including Ivonne Malleza Gallano, a member of the Ladies in White protest group, will not be released.

"It is obvious that the prevailing regime in the island is trying to improve its public image abroad with lukewarm decisions such as this pardoning," he said.

It is not known how many prisons or inmates there are in Cuba since the Communist government in the island is secretive about its penal population. By some estimates, there could be as many as 80,000 inmates being held in Cuban jails.

Since Gross' arrest, US officials have made it clear that there could be no improvements to bilateral relations if the 62-year-old subcontractor isn't released. Cuban authorities said they would free Gross only if Washington agrees to free the so-called "Miami Five," a group of five Cuban intelligence officials serving time in the United States for spying.

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