HAVANA -- Cuba appeared to be making quick progress in meeting a pledge to free 2,900 pardoned prisoners, most of them convicted of minor crimes, even as a top human rights official on the island criticized the year-end amnesty as a "media show."
Human rights official Elizardo Sanchez and dissidents on the Communist-run island said Wednesday that authorities had released more than 2,500 inmates. The government has published a list of names of those pardoned in the Official Gazette, but has not said how the liberations announced by President Raul Castro on Friday are going. Castro said he was granting the pardons in connection with an upcoming visit by Pope Benedict XVI.
One freed prisoner, Jose Menendez, told The Associated Press that it was a complete and welcome surprise when he heard his name over a prison loudspeaker and was told he was on the list.
"If I could talk to President Raul and the Pope, I would shake their hand and say that I am immensely grateful for this opportunity for life that they have given me," an emotional Menendez said from his small Havana apartment, his wife at his side.
Menendez, 46, was imprisoned in the late 1980s on gun charges, and subsequently convicted of other crimes committed while behind bars. He was not due to be released until 2029.
Castro announced the amnesty in a speech to lawmakers on Friday, and noted that most of those pardoned were first-time offenders, youths, women, inmates over 60 or those suffering from illness.
Sanchez, the head of the independent Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said only five prisoners convicted of political crimes appeared to be among those pardoned, including a doctor convicted of revealing state secrets, and another prisoner sentenced in connection with a hijacking. He said the overall number of inmates freed was dwarfed by Cuba's prison population.
"It's evident that this is a media show," Sanchez said. "When there are 70,000 prisoners, releasing 3,000 of them is a very small thing."
The government has not said how many people it holds in its jails. While it tolerates Sanchez's activities, it considers all dissidents to be mercenaries sent by Washington to undermine the revolution.
Among those freed in Castro's amnesty were 86 foreigners, many convicted of drug trafficking or prostitution.
One high-profile inmate left off the list was American subcontractor Alan Gross, who is serving a 15-year jail term for crimes against the state. Gross' supporters acknowledge he was on a USAID-funded democracy-building program when he was arrested in 2009, but insist the 62-year-old Maryland native was simply trying to improve Internet connections for Cuba's small Jewish community. Havana says the programs are aimed at regime change.
The case has shredded any hope of improved ties between Washington and Havana, which had briefly been on the upswing after the election of President Barack Obama. U.S. officials have said repeatedly no progress can be made while Gross remains jailed.
Earlier this year, Cuba freed the last of 75 intellectuals, activists and social commentators jailed since a notorious 2003 sweep. While others convicted of politically motivated crimes remain jailed on the island, most were found guilty of violent acts such as hijacking or armed assault.
The human rights group Amnesty International no longer includes any Cuban inmates on its global list of "prisoners of conscience," though it stresses that the harassment and brief detention of dissidents continues.