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Castro to Release Political Prisoners, Cardinal Says

June 5, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ Cuban President Fidel Castro, responding to a personal appeal from Cardinal John J. O’Connor, has agreed to release virtually all the political prisoners in his country’s jails, the church leader said Sunday.

″Back two weeks ago, the Cuban ambassador to the United Nations brought me a list of many, many names - there must have been hundreds,″ O’Connor said of a letter he received announcing Castro’s decision. ″It was a direct follow-up to my talks with President Castro.″

The New York Times, which reported the story in Sunday’s paper, said 385 of the 429 political prisoners remaining in Cuban jails would be released. Amnesty International, the worldwide human rights group, estimated in its 1987 annual report that 450 political prisoners were being held in Cuba.

O’Connor discussed the possible release of the group during a four-hour meeting with Castro in April, where the cardinal - the first Roman Catholic bishop to visit Cuba in two decades - made personal appeals for several prisoners.

The cardinal, who leaves Sunday night on a trip for the Soviet Union, had no timetable for the release. The State Department confirmed it had the list, but none of the names were released.

On Friday, 20 ex-political prisoners and their relatives, 41 people in all, arrived Miami. Small groups of released prisoners have been arriving almost weekly since an agreement last November between the U.S. and Cuban governments provided for immigration of certain categories of prisoners.

Three of the men in Friday’s group, Lopez Castillo, Enrique Hernandez Mendez and Ramon Guin Diaz, said two others scheduled to have made the trip didn’t make it because of beatings from prison guards.

The two left behind had demonstrated against ″cosmetic measures″ the Cuban government set up in preparation for visits by various international organizations, said Hernandez Mendez, a vice president of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, a non-governmental group.

″The political prisoners refused to be transferred from their inhuman prison cells to others in better conditions, prepared by the government, so as to make a good impression on the members of the International Red Cross,″ he said.

O’Connor, at an impromptu news conference after Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, said: ″I hope it (a release of prisoners) is motivated by humanitarian purposes. But even if it is not, it would have the political intention of sending some signals that things are changing in Cuba.″

O’Connor added that he had received ″almost a commitment that no ‘hardened criminals’ would be sent to the United States″ - a concern due to the 1980 boat lift that brought hundreds of freed Cuban criminals to the United States.

Last Thursday, O’Connor said, he met with Cuban Vice President Dr. Carlos Rafael Rodriguez to discuss the prisoners’ list and two other topics: sending AIDS specialists to Cuba and possibly shipping some medicine to the country.

The Times reported the 44 prisoners who would not be released had been jailed since shortly after Castro assumed power in 1959; the Cuban leader said the 44 were convicted of ″grave and dangerous violations.″

Despite his optimism over the prisoner release and the medical programs, O’Connor expressed concern that Castro could undo the progress by attacking the United States in one of his speeches.

″I hope he doesn’t come out with any foolish tirades against the United States, because many of us are working to renew the relationship between our two countries,″ he said.