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New York Times

The Cuban government Wednesday released five political prisoners and agreed to set free 47 others in the coming months, a dramatic move that might save the life of a prominent dissident who has been on a hunger strike for four months to push for the liberation of inmates.

The deal, which reduces the number of prisoners of conscience on the island by about a third, came after a meeting that included President Raul Castro of Cuba; Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana; and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.

The prisoners to be released were all detained during a crackdown on dissent in 2003, when the government of President Fidel Castro rounded up 75 activists and journalists who were accused of acting as "mercenaries" on behalf of the United States.

The announcement of the decision to release the prisoners came in a statement from Ortega spokesman Orlando Marquez.

The five prisoners freed Wednesday, whose identities were not released, were to be flown to Spain with their families. The others to be set free will also be allowed to leave the country, church officials said.

"This process will be concluded in three to four months from now," the church statement said.

Moratinos had arrived in Havana this week in a bid to save the life of Guillermo Farinas, 48, a psychologist and journalist who has been on a hunger strike since Feb. 24.

A previous hunger striker, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died in February, delivering an embarrassing blow to the Cuban government. He was a political prisoner and had stopped eating for 85 days to protest prison conditions.