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Sunday, 5 May, 2002, 14:09 GMT 15:09 UK
Leading Cuban dissident freed
(left to right) Vladimiro Roca, Odilia Collazo (not jailed), Marta Beatriz Roque, Rene Gomez Manzano and Felix Bonne at 1997 news conference
Roca (left) received the longest sentence of his group
Cuba's best known political prisoner, Vladimiro Roca, has been freed, 10 weeks ahead of his scheduled release at the end of a five-year sentence.

The 59-year-old dissident walked out of the prison in Ariza in the central province of Cienfuegos, where he was met by his wife Magaly de Armas.

The couple walked to a waiting car arm-in-arm and drove off towards the capital Havana, which lies about two hours away.

Roca and three others were jailed in 1999 for inciting sedition. He had spent 18 months in solitary confinement before the secret trail.

His release comes one week before former US President Jimmy Carter arrives in the communist country for a historic five-day visit.

Local analysts said the release had to be approved by Cuban President Fidel Castro.

International protest

Mr Roca - son of the late Communist leader Blas Roca - was a member of Cuba's communist-controlled labour movement before he joined the opposition in the early 1990s.

The sentences on the so-called Group of Four drew international protests and appeals for clemency from the European Union, Canada and the United States, and the Vatican among others.

The other three activists - Felix Bonne, Marta Beatriz Roque and Rene Gomez Manzano - were released in May 2000 after serving half of their terms.

They were arrested after holding several rare news conferences to criticise the ruling Communist Party in front of the foreign media.

The government accused the four dissidents of promoting aggressive US policies toward the communist nation and trying to harm the economy by discouraging foreign investment.

They were also accused of urging Cubans not to vote, urging foreign businessmen not to invest in Cuba and asking Cuban exiles to encourage relatives on the island to undertake acts of civil disobedience.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Daniel Schweimler
"The move is being seen as a goodwill gesture"
See also:

09 Apr 02 | Americas
Carter set for historic Cuba trip
25 Apr 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Cuba
24 May 00 | Americas
Third Cuban dissident freed
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