Cuba to grant amnesty to 2,900 prisoners – Castro

President Raul Castro announced on Friday that his governemtn would pardon 2,900 prisoners, including some convicted of political crimes. Castro cited an upcoming visit by Pope Benedict XVI among the reasons for the amnesty.

Pope Benedict is due to arrive in Cuba in March, in the first papal visit since Pope John Paul II’s landmark 1998 tour.

Castro said the move was a goodwill gesture, in light of numerous requests received from the prisoners’ relatives and from religious institutions. The Cuban leader made the announcement in a speech at the National Assembly on Friday, noting that the humanitarian act showed Cuba’s strength. The president said 86 foreign prisoners from 25 countries were on the list of those who would be freed, and that diplomats would be notified shortly.

Earlier, Prensa Latina reported that among those 2,900 prisoners to be released are some who are older than 60, or are the ailing, women and youth without no substantial criminal records. “All of them have completed an important portion of their sentence and shown good behavior,” says the official government statement quoted by the news agency.

Those convicted for serious crimes like murder, espionage or drug trafficking would not be part of the amnesty, the statement says. However, some people convicted of political crimes were on the release list.

Alan Gross, an American government subcontractor sentenced to 15 years after his arrest in 2009 for crimes against the state, is not among the prisoners granted amnesty, Cuban Vice Foreign Minister Josefina Vidal told AP.

Alan Gross, a 62-year old Maryland native, was jailed for providing illegal Internet access to dissident groups, which gave chilled already-icy relations between the US and Cuba.Gross claimed he was merely assisting the nation’s small Jewish community to get online. His supporters in the US have been continuously asking Cuba to release him on humanitarian grounds.

In July 2010, Havana freed some of the prisoners of the mass arrests in 2003 known as Cuba’s Black Spring, which became an internationally condemned event. The EU called off cooperation with the island nation, which it officially resumed only in 2008.

However, while others remain jailed for politically motivated crimes, most were involved in acts of violence like hijacking. Rights group Amnesty International no longer includes any Cuban prisoners among its global list of "prisoners of conscience."

Cuba denies holding political prisoners, saying any in custody are mercenaries in the pay of the US aiming to destabilize the government.