Cuba to free 12 jailed dissidents, church says

HAVANA — Cuban church officials on Saturday released the names of 12 more political prisoners who will be freed and sent into exile in the coming days under a landmark agreement with President Raul Castro's government, bringing to 17 the total number of jailed dissidents who have accepted asylum in Spain.

While there has been no word on when the men will be freed, there are growing signs that a release could be imminent, with the wife of one prisoner saying Cuban officials told her to prepare to leave the country.

"They (Cuban officials) called me to tell me to get ready to leave, because they would be around to get us," Barbara Rojo, the wife of prisoner Omar Ruiz, told the Associated Press.

Another prisoner, Jose Luis Garcia, was being moved from a jail in Las Tunas to Havana, said his mother, Moralinda Paneque.

The 17 are among a group of 52 opposition leaders, journalists and activists who remain in jail following a broad crackdown on dissent in 2003 that resulted in lengthy prison terms on treason and other charges.

The government agreed to release them after a meeting Wednesday between Castro and Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega. The church has taken an increasingly public role in relations between the government and the opposition since the death of a jailed dissident hunger striker in February. The meeting was brokered by visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.

The church announced the names of the first five prisoners to be released on Thursday, and said all had accepted asylum in Spain, as did those on the list announced Saturday. Neither the church nor the Cuban government has said whether agreeing to exile is a requirement of release. Ortega has described exile as an option. A church official told the AP on Saturday that it was not clear when any of the men will actually leave jail.

Also in Cuba, new photographs of a smiling, tracksuit-clad Fidel Castro greeting workers at a scientific think tank were posted on the websites of two Cuban journalists Saturday, offering a rare glimpse of the reclusive revolutionary leader in a public forum.

Castro, 83, appears slightly stooped but otherwise healthy in the four pictures, which were apparently taken Wednesday with a worker's mobile phone.