HAVANA — The Roman Catholic Church said Tuesday that the Cuban government will release the last two political prisoners held since a 2003 crackdown on dissent, a landmark announcement that came the same day Fidel Castro said he had stepped down as head of the island's Communist Party.
The decision will clear Cuban jails of the last of 75 prominent intellectuals, opposition leaders and activists whose imprisonment on charges including treason has long soured relations with the outside world.
The last two men to be released are Felix Navarro and Jose Daniel Ferrer, activists who had each been sentenced to 25 years in jail.
"I am very content and nervous at the same time," said Bertha Soler, a leader of the Ladies in White opposition group and the wife of recently freed prisoner Angel Moya. The Ladies — wives and mothers of the 2003 prisoners — have been marching peacefully each Sunday since the arrests.
Soler said the women would continue to protest, despite the fact that their loved ones are now out of jail.
"It is very important that we fight, not only for the freedom of the 75, but also for other prisoners," she said.
Cuba has been releasing the men gradually under an agreement President Raul Castro and Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega reached in July. Officials here complain the government has received little credit in Washington and European capitals for the releases, which come as President Raul Castro has overhauled the economy and legalized a limited amount of private enterprise.
Most of the dissidents have accepted a deal to fly into exile in Spain, along with their families. But the releases bogged down in recent months because a dozen refused to leave their homeland.
Finally the government began to let them go, too, allowing them to return to their homes.
Navarro and Ferrer are the last inmates considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, though human rights activists contend there are others in jail for political reasons.
Many of them do not qualify for the designation of prisoner of conscience because they were sentenced for violent — but politically motivated — acts, like hijacking and assault.
Cuba's communist government has freed dozens of such inmates — more than 60 in all — even though that wasn't part of the agreement with the church. In addition to Navarro and Ferrer, the church announced that the government would free 11 other prisoners who had accepted a deal to fly into exile in Spain, along with their families.
Three of the 11 are on a list of people in prison for politically motivated crimes that is maintained by Elizardo Sanchez, an independent human rights activist on the island. Sanchez's list, which a few years ago had more than 300 names on it, is down to about 50 now.
But that includes a number of people in jail for murder, terrorism and other serious crimes who are not recognized as political prisoners by prominent international rights organizations.
Sanchez said the release of Navarro and Ferrer is a watershed moment but does not tell the whole story about repression on the island.
"When they arrive in their homes, it will be the end of the process for this group," he told The Associated Press. "But there will be new political prisoners because the government continues to criminalize civil rights, and nothing will change that."
Sanchez said he had sent a list of names of new candidates for the "prisoner of conscience" designation to Amnesty International, but has not heard back on whether they will be formally recognized.
Despite the agreement, the government considers all the dissidents to be common criminals. It has been highlighting their links to Washington in a series of television programs in recent weeks, complete with grainy footage of them meeting with U.S. diplomats on the island.
Cuba contends opposition members are financed by Washington, which it says aims to use their activities to destabilize the government.
Tuesday's announcement came hours after revolutionary icon Fidel Castro revealed that he had stepped down five years ago as Communist Party chief, the last official post he was believed to hold. The elder Castro, 84, was forced by illness to turn the presidency over to his brother Raul in 2006.
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