Cuba pardons thousands of prisoners ahead of papal visit
Pope Francis (AFP Photo / Filippo Monteforte)

Cuba's government announced pardons Friday for more than 3,500 prisoners, setting the stage for an eagerly awaited visit by Pope Francis with the largest release of its kind since the 1959 revolution.

The official Communist Party daily Granma published the decision by the Council of State to free 3,522 prisoners "on the occasion of the visit of His Holiness Pope Francis."

The Argentine-born pope is visiting Cuba September 19-22, the first stop on a trip that also will take him to the United States.

In Cuba, he will visit Havana, the northeastern city of Holguin and Santiago de Cuba on the southeastern end of the island. He is expected to meet privately with President Raul Castro.

The pontiff's arrival -- always a major political event in the communist-ruled island -- comes amid a historic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States that Francis helped to bring about.

The Catholic Church is the sole independent institution allowed to function in the country, and it has emerged as a key intermediary in the island's transition to a post-Castro era.

With the church's encouragement, Raul Castro has pressed a gradual opening of Cuba's economy while maintaining strict Communist Party control over its political system.

In return for its support, the church has been given greater access to the state media, and is allowed to distribute its publications within the island. In 2010, it opened its first seminary in Cuba in half a century.

- Mass pardons a feature of papal visits -

Mass pardons have been a feature of previous papal visits, but this one is the largest since Raul's brother Fidel Castro came to power more than 56 years ago.

The prisoners -- a wide range that includes the ill, the aged, the very young, women and foreigners -- will be released within 72 hours, Granma said.

They were selected "by the nature of the acts for which they were jailed, their behavior in prison, the time of punishment and health concerns," Granma said.

Except in a few "humanitarian" cases, prisoners convicted of murder, rape, pedophilia, drug trafficking, violent crimes or crimes against the state will remain behind bars.

Beneficiaries include inmates over age 60, those under 20 with no previous record, the chronically ill, women, and foreigners whose countries have agreed to take them back.

In 2012, the last year for which government statistics have been made public, there were an estimated 57,000 inmates in 200 prisons around the island.

A visit by Pope Benedict in March 2012 prompted the government to release nearly 3,000 prisoners in December 2011.

That was about 10 times more than Fidel Castro freed a month after the visit of John Paul II, in January 1998.

The numbers reflect warming relations between church and state since John Paul's visit. They have gathered momentum under Raul Castro, who became president in 2006 after ill health forced his brother to step down.

In 2010, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the head of the Cuban church, played a key mediating role in the release of about 130 jailed dissidents, opening a dialogue that has continued ever since.

As part of the normalization of relations with Washington, Cuba officially released its last 53 political prisoners, although a dissident human rights group says about 60 others are still behind bars.