* Diplomats wait for news on jailed nationals
* U.S. laments fate of jailed contractor Gross
By Rosa Tania Valdés
HAVANA, Dec 27 (Reuters) - More than 2,500 Cuban prisoners
have been released in recent days under a New Year's amnesty
announced before a visit next spring by Pope Benedict XVI, a
local human rights group said on Tuesday.
Cuban President Raul Castro said last Friday that the ruling
Council of State had granted amnesty to more than 2,900 common
Castro said the amnesty was a "humanitarian gesture" and had
also "taken into account" an upcoming papal visit and requests
by, among others, top Roman Catholic Church officials in Cuba
and relatives of the prisoners.
"We estimate that more than 2,500 prisoners have been
released in all the provinces, and the process continues,"
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission on
Human Rights, told Reuters.
The government and official media have not commented on the
"The Cuban Commission on Human Rights applauds these
releases, but really it is a limited gesture as we calculate
there are between 70,000 and 80,000 Cubans in prison," Sanchez
Sanchez said those freed so far included five political
Cuba released 130 political prisoners in a deal brokered by
the Catholic Church in 2010. Cuban dissidents have said there
are still at least 60 people behind bars for political reasons,
including some convicted of boat and plane hijackings and
Castro said on Friday the amnesty covered people more than
60 years of age, prisoners who are ill, women and some young
prisoners who had no previous criminal history, as well as a few
prisoners who had been convicted for crimes against "the
security of the state."
The Cuban president said 86 foreigners from 25 countries
convicted of committing crimes in Cuba were also on the amnesty
A number of Western diplomats said on Tuesday they were
waiting to be contacted by Cuban authorities about their
nationals in Cuban jails.
U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who began serving a 15-year
prison term this year after being convicted of participating in
a semi-covert U.S. democracy-building program to establish a
clandestine Internet platform inside Cuba, was not on the
amnesty list, Cuban officials said.
The U.S. government and Gross family insist the contractor
was simply helping Jewish groups connect with each other and
Jews around the world.
Gross' imprisonment threw cold water on a warming trend in
relations between the decades-old-ideological foes.
"If this is correct, we are deeply disappointed and deplore
the fact that the Cuban government has decided not to take this
opportunity to extend this humanitarian release to Mr. Gross
this holiday season, especially in light of his deteriorating
health, and to put an end to the Gross family's long plight,"
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said on Saturday.
(Additional reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Tom Brown and
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