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Cuba was set to release four political prisoners on the condition that they leave immediately.
Another three prisoners will be freed soon, the Spanish government announced Friday. The four heading to Spain were among the 75 dissidents arrested in the ''Dark Spring of 2003.'' Their release will cut the number still held to 55.

In the 18 months since ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro turned power over to his brother, Raúl, the number of dissidents held for political crimes such as ''dangerousness'' or rebellion has dropped by 82. Cuba still holds an estimated 230 political prisoners, according to human-rights activists.

The decision also comes at a politically volatile time -- just nine days before the National Assembly meets to select the nation's new president. With Fidel Castro sidelined by an illness since July 2006, it's the first time the outcome of such an election is not certain.

The four to be released were identified as Pedro Pablo Alvarez Ramos, serving a 25-year sentence; Omar Pernet, serving 25 years; José Gabriel Ramón Castillo, sentenced to 20 years; and Alejandro González Raga, serving 14 years.

They were expected to leave Havana on a 10 p.m. Friday flight to Madrid, Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said by phone from Havana.

The ensuing group of three to be released were not identified.

Word of the release first came Wednesday, activists said, when González's family arrived in Havana from Camagüey in preparation for the trip to Europe.

It was made public Friday by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who told reporters in Córdoba, Spain. The Cuban government did not immediately comment and attempts to reach the Spanish ambassador in Washington were unsuccessful.

The move was decried by hard-line members of the Cuban opposition, who cast it as a cynical ploy to boost Spain's socialist government, which faces a general election next month.

''This is not what the opposition needs,'' said Martha Beatriz Roque, one of the original 75. ``They are using the political prisoners for their own political gain. . . . The position the Spanish government has taken on this makes me nauseous.''

After taking office in 2004, socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero renewed friendly diplomatic relations with Cuba, despite an international outcry over the 2003 dissident roundup. Moratinos was widely criticized at home and abroad for a trip to Havana last year in which he did not visit dissidents.

Officials from the two countries have held two rounds of human-rights talks, including Monday in Madrid.

''This is a unilateral decision by the Cuban authorities, which we appreciate,'' Moratinos told reporters. ``We are going to continue working with them with an eye toward the future, always respecting that these are their decisions and, logically, encouraging them to advance in this area.''

Relatives of the prisoners to be freed said they were thrilled with the news, but cautious.

''Until I see him myself, I won't believe it,'' said Omar Pernet's sister, Mirta, who moved to Miami-Dade County last year.

There were unconfirmed reports that one of the other three dissidents to be released is opposition journalist José Luis García Paneque. Sánchez stressed there was no confirmation about García.

''He hasn't called me,'' García's mother, Moralinda Paneque, said from the eastern city of Las Tunas. ``I'll feel complete happiness when he calls me from somewhere outside prison.''

Miami exile groups welcomed the prisoners' release but noted that the four were forced to leave.

(Miami Herald)

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