- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 13, 2010

MADRID (AP) — Seven Cuban political prisoners and members of their families arrived in Madrid on Tuesday, the first of a group of inmates the government in Havana has promised to release, an official said.

The prisoners arrived on two flights that left Cuba’s capital Monday night, a Spanish Foreign Ministry spokesman said. Together with their families they numbered around 35, the official said.

It was the start of a mass liberation of dissidents promised by Cuba — actions once seemed unthinkable.

Cuba says it will free a total of 52 inmates after Cuba’s Roman Catholic Church reached an agreement last week with the government to liberate those still imprisoned from a 2003 crackdown that jailed 75 activists.

Spain, which took part in the negotiations, agreed to accept the first group.

The Foreign Ministry official was speaking on the condition of anonymity in keeping with ministry regulations.

He said six former inmates — Lester Gonzalez, Omar Ruiz, Antonio Villarreal, Julio Cesar Galvez, Jose Luis Garcia Paneque and Pablo Pacheco — were aboard an Air Europa flight that arrived at 12:49 p.m. at Barajas airport.

A seventh released prisoner, identified as Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso, arrived on an Iberia flight about an hour later.

The seven were expected to come through arrivals together after the second plane landed. It was not immediately known how many of them would speak to the media.

“They have come from jail to the plane. I feel a mix of joy and pain because to live in freedom one must leave the country,” said Blanca Reyes, representative in Madrid for the Cuban dissident group Ladies in White, who was at the airport.

One of the released, Omar Ruiz, who had been serving a 12-year sentence for treason, told the Associated Press on Monday he and six other former inmates were driven in a van to Havana’s Jose Marti International airport, where they were reunited with relatives in a special waiting room. All were then escorted to an Air Europa flight bound for Madrid.

He said Cuban officials were watching them.

“That’s why I won’t consider myself free until I arrive in Spain,” he said.

The government of Raul Castro has pledged to free 52 Cubans who international human rights group say were jailed for their political beliefs. That process is expected to take three or four months and is part of a landmark deal last week between Cuban authorities and the island’s Roman Catholic Church that was brokered by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.

Spanish authorities have said that once the Cubans arrive, they will not be required to stay in Spain and will be free to head elsewhere.

The church says another 13 opposition activists and dissidents behind bars will go free soon. It was not known if subsequently released prisoners will be allowed to stay in Cuba or will be forced to go to another country. Both the U.S. and Chile have offered to grant them asylum, in addition to Spain.

Associated Press writers Will Weissert and Andrea Rodriguez in Havana and Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report.

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