Cuba frees 53 political prisoners as agreed in US deal

Cuba has released all 53 of the political prisoners it agreed to free in last month's normalization deal with the United States, the US State Department said Monday.

News of the release came as US officials prepare to travel to Havana next week for talks to lay the foundation for a historic rapprochement after a half-century of Cold War enmity.

"We welcome this very positive development and are pleased that the Cuban government followed through on this commitment," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

"These political prisoners were individuals who had been cited by various human rights organizations as being imprisoned by the Cuban government for exercising internationally protected freedoms or for their promotion of political and social reforms in Cuba," she said.

A senior administration official said earlier that the US Interests Section in Havana had verified the releases.

The full list of 53 names was released Monday by the offices of several US lawmakers, accompanied by a letter from Secretary of State John Kerry.

In Havana, dissident groups and the Catholic Church welcomed the news as a positive step forward, but neither could independently confirm the releases, and state-run media was silent on the matter.

- 'Where are the other 12?' -

Dissident leaders said late last week that Cuba had released more than 40 dissidents by late Friday, as part of last month's historic bilateral rapprochement in which Cuba agreed to free dozens of political prisoners as part of the deal to end a five-decade standoff with the United States.

The head of the Ladies in White dissident group -- which stages recurring protests in the Cuba capital -- however took issue with the assertion that 53 political detainees were freed by the government, saying she believes the number is smaller.

"We really don't know who these 53 freed people are," the group's leader Berta Soler told AFP, adding that by her count, only 41 dissidents have been released.

"Where are the other 12?" she said, calling on both the Havana and US governments to publish lists with the names of those who are supposed to have been freed.

Soler added that the freed prisoners were only "conditionally released," implying they could be re-arrested in the future.

"By contrast the three spies freed by the United States are able to walk the street without conditions, even though they have blood on their hands," said Soler, referring to members of the Cuban Five group sent back to Havana after years of imprisonment in America, as part of the normalization deal reached with Washington.

- Freed in 'record time' -

Still, dissidents said the speedy release of the political prisoners was a sign of how much and how quickly relations have changed between Washington and Havana.

"The fact that the prisoners were released in almost record time seems to me a positive event," said opposition figure Manuel Cuesta Morua.

"I think it's a sign the Cuban government is serious about normalizing its relationship with the United States," he said.

"It also seem to be an important indicator of the fact that the Cuban government seems to understand that the path of normalization travels through human rights."

Washington is seen as likely to ramp up pressure on Cuba on the issue of human rights, as the two nations prepare to hold talks in Havana on January 21 and 22.

Elizardo Sanchez of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Committee said "around 60" political prisoners are still being held by Communist authorities.

Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Roberta Jacobson will lead the US delegation.

Jacobson is set to be the highest-ranking US official to visit the Caribbean island in several decades. She last set foot in Cuba in 2011 when she held a lower office at the State Department.

Late last month, a Cuban round-up of about 50 dissidents briefly caused a new diplomatic scuffle with Washington, just days after the announcement of their historic renewal of bilateral ties.

The detentions revived criticism from those who disapprove of the rapprochement -- including many US lawmaker, who have said the United States should first have secured concessions from Cuba on democratic reforms and human rights.

Cuba's President Raul Castro has said he is willing to discuss any topic with Washington as part of their historic diplomatic breakthrough, but that he will not reverse the Cuban revolution.