Cuba will release 2,900 prisoners in the coming days for humanitarian reasons in a sweeping amnesty ahead of a visit next spring by Pope Benedict XVI, the Cuban government said on Friday.
Those to be pardoned do not include American Alan Gross, serving 15 years in prison for setting up Internet equipment on the island under a secretive U.S. program in a case that stalled progress in U.S.-Cuba relations, a government spokesman said.
The government said the ruling Council of State had granted the amnesty in a decision that President Raul Castro, in a separate speech to the National Assembly, said had taken into account the upcoming papal visit and requests by, among others, top Roman Catholic Church officials in Cuba and family members of the prisoners.
The action showed the generosity and strength of the Cuban revolution, he said.
Those to be released included some who had been convicted for crimes against the security of the state, but the government spokesman said they were not jailed for political reasons.
Cuba released more than a 100 political prisoners in a deal brokered by the Catholic Church in 2010. Cuban dissidents have said there are still at least 60 people behind bars for political reasons.
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights, downplayed the importance of the prisoner release and criticized the government for not saying anything about depenalizing the exercise of human rights.
Those to be released include prisoners more than 60 years of age, prisoners who are ill, women and some young prisoners who had no previous criminal history, the government said.
Castro said 86 of the prisoners are foreigners from 25 countries.
Pope Benedict said recently he would visit Cuba and Mexico before Easter, which falls on April 8. It would be the second papal visit to the Communist-run island since Pope John Paul II's historic visit in 1998.
After that visit, in which the pontiff criticized the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, the Cuban government freed about 300 prisoners, including 101 political prisoners. The others were in jail for common crimes.
Minor prisoner releases have taken place over the years, usually as a goodwill gesture accompanying the visit of a dignitary such as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter or other foreign representatives.
Cuba freed 3,600 political prisoners after then Cuban leader Fidel Castro met with exiles in 1978 during Carter's presidency.
Many Cubans had expected President Castro to announce a liberalization of immigration rules that would make it easier for them to travel abroad, but he said only that it was being worked on and changes would be made gradually.
(Reporting by Jeff Franks; editing by Anthony Boadle)