Cuba to release thousands of prisoners ahead of Pope Francis’ visit
HAVANA, Cuba – Cuba has announced pardons for more than 3,500 prisoners in a goodwill gesture ahead of Pope Francis’ visit this weekend.
The official Communist Party newspaper Granma published the decision by the Council of State to free 3,522 prisoners in the largest release of its kind since the 1959 revolution “on the occasion of the visit of His Holiness Pope Francis.”
The news was greeted with “profound satisfaction” by Cuba’s Conference of Bishops, who called it an “act of mercy” that bodes well for the pope’s visit.
“It’s a reason for joy and spiritual relief for the inmates and their families,” it said in a statement.
The 78-year-old pope is scheduled to arrive in Cuba on Saturday for a three-day visit on the first leg of a trip that will also take him to the United States.
The Argentine-born pontiff is expected to visit Havana, the northeastern city of Holguin and Santiago de Cuba on the southeastern end of the island.
He is slated to meet with Fidel Castro if the former Cuban leader’s health permits, according to BBC News.
Mass pardons have been a feature of previous papal visits, with Pope Benedict’s March 2012 visit prompting Havana to release nearly 3,000 prisoners in December 2011.
That was about 10 times more than Fidel Castro freed a month after the visit of John Paul II, in January 1998.
The numbers are said to reflect warming relations between church and state since John Paul’s visit. They have gathered momentum under Raul Castro, who became president in 2006 after ill health forced his brother to step down.
The government says those currently being freed include inmates due for conditional release next year, as well as a number of foreign prisoners whose countries have agreed to repatriate them.
Those found guilty of crimes against state security are ineligible, apparently ruling out several high-profile political prisoners.
According to Granma, prisoners were chosen for early release depending on the severity of their crimes, amount of time served, and good behaviour.
Among those being freed are a number of inmates over 60-years-old, prisoners under 20-years-old with no prior criminal records, and inmates with chronic health conditions.
Except in a few “humanitarian” cases, prisoners convicted of murder, rape, paedophilia, drug trafficking, violent crimes or crimes against the state will remain behind bars.
In 2012, the last year for which government statistics have been made public, there were an estimated 57,000 inmates in 200 prisons around the island.
The pardons and the pontiff’s arrival in the communist-ruled Caribbean country come amid a historic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States that Francis helped to bring about.
He was directly involved in organising a series of secret diplomatic meetings between the two sides, according to the BBC.
Pope Francis is no stranger to Cuba, having been present during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit in 2012. He is also the author of a book about the island.
The Catholic Church is the sole independent institution allowed to function in Cuba, and it has emerged as a key intermediary in the island’s transition to a post-Castro era.
With the church’s encouragement, Raul Castro has pressed a gradual opening of Cuba’s economy while maintaining strict Communist Party control over its political system.
In return for its support, the church has been given greater access to the state media, and is allowed to distribute its publications within the island. In 2010, it opened its first seminary in Cuba in half a century.