Cuba to free 2,900 prisoners ahead of visit by Pope Benedict XVI

Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, was unsuccessful in his attempts to negotiate Alan Gross' release from a Cuban jail. He is shown here giving a press conference on September 9, 2011, at the Hotel Nacional in Havana.


Adalberto Roque

Cuba will release 2,900 prisoners ahead of a visit next spring by Pope Benedict XVI, the Cuban government reportedly said Friday, citing humanitarian reasons.

President Raul Castro called the move was a goodwill gesture prompted by appeals from relatives of the prisoners — many of them unwell, women or elderly — and religious institutions, the BBC reported.

Castro, in a speech to the National Assembly, also said he had "taken into account" the upcoming papal visit, Reuters reported.

Top Roman Catholic Church officials in Cuba had reportedly been among those requesting the release of prisoners.

Castro reportedly said the amnesty demonstrated the "generosity and strength" of the Cuban revolution.

However American Alan Gross, who according to Reuters is "serving 15 years in prison for setting up Internet equipment on the island under a secretive U.S. program in a case that stalled progress in US-Cuba relations," will reportedly not be released, despite his case being a sticking point in Havana-Washington relations.

(GlobalPost reports: Jailed American going home?)

Relatives of Gross, 62, from Maryland, conceded that he was on "a democracy building program, The Guardian reported.

However, they said, "his goal was simply to help the island's tiny Jewish community gain better access to the internet." 

Cuba charged that the programs sought to overthrow the government.

Anyone convicted of a serious crime like murder, espionage or drug trafficking were also not part of the amnesty.

However, those convicted of political crimes — viewed by Havana as "crimes against state security" will be, The Guardian reported, citing the news agency Prensa Latina. "All of them have completed an important portion of their sentence and shown good behavior," Prensa Latina reportedly wrote.

Cuban dissidents claim there are at least 60 people behind bars for political reasons.

(More from GlobalPost: Trading with the enemy)

Cuba in 2010 released more than a 100 political prisoners in a deal brokered by the Catholic Church.

Amnesty International no longer includes any Cuban prisoners on its list of "prisoners of conscience" around the world.

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