Cuba holding political prisoners, says Catholic Church

Catholic Church says that Cuba is holding political prisoners, openly contradicting the communist government (AFP Photo/Adalberto Roque)

Havana (AFP) - The Catholic Church said Wednesday that Cuba is holding political prisoners, openly contradicting the communist government, with which it has been mending ties after years of hostility.

"Yes we do have cases of political prisoners, people serving long sentences for whom I have requested a review -- and I won't tire of doing it -- as the representative of the Church," said Jorge Serpa, the bishop of the western province of Pinar del Rio, in an interview with a Catholic magazine.

Cuba's government denies jailing political dissidents, but rights activists on the island say it is holding at least 60 of them.

Attorney General Dario Delgado said earlier this month that the inmates in question were common criminals who "call themselves dissidents."

Serpa, who heads the Church's prison pastoral commission in Cuba, said there are "people who are serving 47, 40 years in prison."

He told the Havana archdiocese magazine, Palabra Nueva, he was in contact with "seven 'orange inmates' who are serving life terms, and some of them are political prisoners."

But, in a nod to the official line, he added that foreigners looking at Cuba sometimes "confuse criminals with political prisoners."

Cuba's prisons do not have chapels. But about a decade ago the authorities began allowing priests to visit with prisoners who request it.

Cuba was an atheist state for more than three decades under former leader Fidel Castro, but has slowly opened up space for the Church to operate since the early 1990s.

The Church played a key role in brokering the talks that led to the historic announcement of a US-Cuban rapprochement last year after half a century of Cold War animosity.