castro and pope
The Cuban government has announced the impending release of thousands of prisoners ahead of the papal visit to the island nation. Pictured: Pope Francis met Cuban President Raul Castro during a private audience at the Vatican, May 10, 2015. REUTERS/Gregorio Borgia/pool

The Cuban government announced plans to grant amnesty to 3,522 prisoners over the next 72 hours as a “humanitarian” gesture in advance of Pope Francis’ visit next week to the country, the Washington Post reported Friday. The announcement, however, appeared to have ruled out the possibility of pardoning dozens of convicts whose release human rights groups have long demanded.

The pardons were expected to include inmates over the age of 60 and under 20 who did not have past convictions, as well as women and foreigners whose countries will accept them. Those serving sentences for serious offenses, such as homicide, rape or drug trafficking are not up for pardons. Those convicted of crimes against "national security" -- presumably political prisoners -- would also not be eligible, a statement in the Communist Party's newspaper said.

Critics of the Cuban government have called on the pope to pressure Castro’s regime to secure the release of jailed activists ahead of his visit. Francis is expected to visit Havana Sept. 19 for a four-day tour of the island nation, before his U.S. visit.

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The Cuban government has repeatedly been criticized by human rights organizations for its arbitrary detentions and its imprisonment of political dissidents. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a group considered illegal by Cuba’s government, said they received more than 7,188 reports of arbitrary detention from January 2014 through August 2014, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). Most of those individuals are held only short term, but Cuba also holds dozens of political prisoners, HRW said.

The number of political prisoners still in custody is difficult to determine, given that rights groups have been restricted from accessing prisons. The outlawed-yet-tolerated Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Conciliation believed 71 individuals were being held as political prisoners, and said they were trying to confirm whether any would be eligible for amnesty, the Washington Post reported.

If the government carries through with the pardons, it won't be the first time Cuba has released prisoners before a pope’s visit. The government issued nearly 3,000 pardons before Pope Benedict XVI visited the island in 2012, and several hundred people were released prior to Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998.

The announcement comes as U.S. and Cuban diplomats began bilateral talks in Havana, marking their first formal meetings since the two nations reopened their respective embassies.