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Freed Cuban Political Prisoners Say Release Marks New Era in Cuba

Seven political prisoners freed by the Cuban government say their release marks a new era in their homeland.

After arriving in Madrid, Spain on Tuesday, released dissident Julio Cesar Galvez read a statement on behalf of all the former prisoners.  He said they hope those who remain in Cuba will enjoy the same freedom they do.

Six of the former prisoners arrived in Spain aboard an Air Europa flight Tuesday.  The seventh arrived later on an Iberia flight.  

The United States welcomed the release and repeated its call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Cuba.

The seven are among 52 prisoners Cuba has agreed to free following negotiations with the Catholic Church and Spain.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley praised the work of the Cuban Catholic Church, Spain and others who worked for the prisoners' freedom.

He described the release as a positive development that the U.S. hopes will represent a step toward increased respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba.

The 52 were among the 75 dissidents arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison terms during a government crackdown in March 2003.

The Spanish government has said it would welcome more prisoners once they are released.  It said the released Cubans will not be required to stay in Spain.

The deal to release the prisoners was announced after Spain's Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos met last week with the Archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega, and Cuban President Raul Castro.

Cuba has said it holds no political prisoners, only what it calls "mercenaries" who Havana claims are working with the United States to undermine Cuban communism.

Word of the release agreement prompted dissident Guillermo Farinas to end a 135-day hunger strike protesting the government's treatment of political prisoners.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and AP.

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