Cuba pardons 3,522 prisoners ahead of Pope Francis visit

Pope Benedict XVI (left) arrives at Jose Marti airport with Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega Jaramillo in Havana in this March 27, 2012 file photo.
Pope Benedict XVI (left) arrives at Jose Marti airport with Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega Jaramillo in Havana in this March 27, 2012 file photo.PHOTO: REUTERS

HAVANA (AFP) - Cuba's government pardoned 3,522 prisoners, the most since the 1959 revolution, as a gesture of goodwill ahead of Pope Francis's visit to the communist island, the official daily Granma said on Friday (Sept 11).

Among those pardoned are people over 60 years old, younger than 20 years old with no criminal record, the chronically ill, women and foreigners, provided their country of origin vows to repatriate them, the newspaper said.

The decision is due to be effective within 72 hours.

"On the occasion of the visit by His Holiness Pope Francis, the Council of State of the Republic of Cuba (the highest governmental body)... agreed to pardon 3,522 prisoners, chosen due by the nature of the acts for which they were jailed, their behaviour in prison, the time of punishment and health concerns," Granma said.

On Dec 28, 2011, Mr Raul Castro's government granted a pardon to 2,991 prisoners ahead of a visit by Pope Benedict in March 2012.

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

The latest prisoner release is the largest since the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, who was replaced for health reasons by his brother Raul in 2006.

In January this year, as a gesture of goodwill after the historic detente with the United States, the communist government pardoned 53 inmates Washington considered "political prisoners".