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Cuba's dissident release heralds 'new era'

Havana agrees to free 52 political prisoners, in a breakthrough church-state deal set to yield the president Raul Castro's biggest prison release.

Cuba has agreed to release 52 political prisoners, in a breakthrough church-state deal set to yield the biggest prisoner release since the president Raul Castro formally took the reins of power in 2008. The release, to include five dissidents, exceeds a bold demand by a hunger-striker near death that some two dozen ill political prisoners be freed in the only one-party communist regime in the Americas. The breakthrough talks were led in their later stages by the Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who said the pending move by the Castro government opens "a new era" in communist Cuba. "We are quite satisfied. A new era is opening in Cuba, with the will to settle once and for all the political prisoner issue," the visiting top Spanish diplomat said optimistically in his first public reaction to the news. The pending release of the 52 - who were part of a group of 75 dissidents rounded up in 2003 and sentenced to jail terms of six to 28 years - was announced at a meeting of Castro, Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Mr Moratinos, a statement from the Archdiocese of Havana said. The remaining 47 dissidents will be freed within the next three to four months by the island's Communist authorities, Roman Catholic church officials said in a statement. The Cuban government has insisted it would not be "blackmailed". But it is also keen to throw international attention off the case of hunger striker Guillermo Farinas, protesting with his life on the line; his and other recent hunger strikes are huge political embarrassments for Havana, drawing an international outcry. The church statement did not identify the political prisoners to be freed, nor did it mention Farinas, who is said to be near death from a months-long hunger strike. News of the dissidents' imminent release came after Spain's top diplomat met with Cuban leaders to try to free the ailing political prisoners and save Farinas's life. Bishop Arturo Gonzalez visited with the hunger striker and was told Farinas was waiting for now. The statement from Cardinal Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, said Mr Ortega was informed that in the coming hours, the five prisoners "will be released and will leave shortly for Spain in the company of their families". Farinas's deteriorating condition has been reported, unusually, in the official communist party newspaper Granma in what observers say is an attempt to defuse international criticism should he die. He has been refusing food since February while demanding the release of 25 political prisoners with failing health. Farinas said he could end his strike when at least five political prisoners are on Cuban streets, having dropped his original demand for all of a group of 25 once church mediation was under way. * AFP

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