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Cuba's release of dissidents not a policy shift

Over the past five days, two of Cuba's best-known political dissidents have walked out of jail and a third may join them soon, a development they attribute to international political pressure on Cuba to improve its human rights practices.

The releases are seen as a concession to critics, rather than a dramatic new shift in policy. Granma, the island's government-run newspaper, made no mention of the releases, and government officials had no comment.

Nonetheless, the grudging concession was seen as a positive step for the estimated 350 political opponents jailed in Cuba for speaking out against the government and other acts not considered crimes in most nations.

"We're very excited and we are going to continue to work in the same direction," promised Marta Beatriz Roque, one of the activists, who was freed Monday night after being jailed since July 1997 for pushing for democratic reforms in Cuba.

In a telephone interview, the economist thanked foreign nations for keeping a focus on Cuba's human rights situation, saying that pressure had been "very effective in bringing about this news."

Roque's surprise release, just a few hours short of her 55th birthday, came after the release Friday of Felix Bonne, 60, a former physics professor and another of the so-called Group of Four dissidents.

The four last year were sentenced to terms of 3{ to 5 years in prison for incitement to sedition after they released a treatise titled "The Fatherland Belongs to All." The document calls for free elections in Cuba and suggests the island's government is focused primarily on holding onto power.

Since their arrests, the four have been a focal point for human rights criticisms of Fidel Castro's government, with a host of international rights groups and political leaders _ from Pope John Paul II to Illinois Gov. George Ryan _ pushing for their release.

"The Cuban government never wants to acknowledge that they respond to pressure and they don't usually act right away," said Uva de Aragon, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. "But I think in the end the pressure worked in this case."

The releases come after a string of stinging human rights rebukes for Cuba. Last month, the United Nations human rights commission voted in Geneva to condemn the island for its rights record. Canada and the European Union, Cuba's closest trading partners, also have stepped up their criticism of Castro's regime in recent months.

Roque, speaking by telephone from her apartment in Havana, predicted that lawyer Rene Gomez, a third member of the Group of Four, would be released as early as this week. Gomez, Roque and Bonne had all enjoyed several weekends at home since the start of the year, an apparent prelude to their releases.

The fourth dissident, Vladamiro Roca, however, was not expected to be freed. Roca, a former fighter pilot in Cuba's military and the son of a member of the Cuban Communist Party's inner circle, has been kept in solitary confinement for almost three years, charged Sanchez, Cuba's leading human rights advocate.

"The government has been especially tough with him," Sanchez said. Like the others, he said, Roca has served enough of his sentence to be eligible for release under Cuban law, but Roca's high profile and leadership position in the group makes that unlikely.

Roque said her release late Monday came as a surprise. Shortly after 6:15 p.m., she said, she was called to the main office of the prison and handed a white sheet of paper.

" "Do you know what this is?' they asked me, and I said, "No, I don't know what this is,' " Roque remembered. "They said, "This is your release.' "

"It was a very good birthday present," she said.

Specifically, she and Bonne were freed under a "conditional release," which sets some limits on their rights outside jail, including where they can work, Roque said.

She said that she and others in the group remain committed to pressuring Castro's regime for greater political freedom and that jail had only given them time to refine their ideas.

"Now we are more mature. We had time to think and reflect," she said.