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Since Raul Castro took over, there are nearly half as many political prisoners.

Associated Press

HAVANA - The number of political prisoners in Cuba continued a notable decline in the first half of 2010, the island's top human rights monitor said Monday, meaning their ranks have dropped by nearly half since Raul Castro took power in 2006.

The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation said the government is using less long-term imprisonment and turning more to a strategy of quick arrests and releases to intimidate those who openly oppose its communist system.

It classed 167 inmates as political prisoners - a drop of 34 since January. But the commission documented 802 brief arrests for dissident activities or beliefs during that time and said many activists are detained only long enough to keep them from holding antigovernment demonstrations.

The report said Cuba's government has made "false promises of 'structural and conceptual change'" while "systematically violating all civil, political, economic and some basic cultural rights."

Still, there appears to be a concerted effort to reduce the island's number of political prisoners. The commission counted 316 prisoners of conscience in July 2006, when Fidel Castro had emergency intestinal surgery and ceded power to his younger brother.

Commission director Elizardo Sanchez said by telephone that the drop has less to do with a transfer of power between brothers and more with the shift in tactics against organized dissent.

The new figure is likely the lowest since the 1959 revolution, which was followed by a roundup of officials of the toppled dictatorship, many of whom were quickly tried and executed.

Fidel Castro said Cuba held 15,000 political prisoners in 1964, but officials in recent years say none of their prisoners is held for political reasons - all for common crimes or for being paid "mercenaries" of U.S.-funded groups trying to overthrow Cuba's government.