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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 December 2007, 12:29 GMT
Cuban dissident calls for amnesty
Oswaldo Paya with his petitions outside the National Assembly
Oswaldo Paya is one of Cuba's best-known dissidents
A leading Cuban dissident has called on Cuba's parliament to grant an amnesty to non-violent political prisoners and to allow Cubans to travel freely.

Oswaldo Paya said his petitions were made on "human, not political terms".

Human rights groups say there are nearly 250 political prisoners in Cuban jails, whom the authorities say are mercenaries in the pay of the US.

Mr Paya's call came a day after Cuban leader Fidel Castro for the first time suggested he may step back from power.

Mr Castro, 81, who had emergency surgery last July and has not been seen in public since, said he would not block the rise of younger people.

Mr Paya, one of Cuba's most prominent dissidents, delivered two petitions to the National Assembly in Havana.

The first called for the release of all "peaceful" prisoners of conscience, many of whom are suffering bad health, Mr Paya said.

Several dozen political prisoners have been freed since Raul Castro, brother of President Fidel Castro, took over as acting president on 31 July 2006, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Reconciliation.

The group, which is tolerated by the authorities, says there are some 246 prisoners of conscience.

'Peaceful change'

Mr Paya's second proposal called for all Cubans to be allowed to travel both within and outside the island, without needing a government permit.

"The vast majority of Cubans want peaceful change," Mr Paya told the BBC.

He said his petitions drew on the 25,000 supporters of the Varela Project, a movement he and other activists started to call for a referendum on democratic reforms in Cuba.

Mr Paya said he hoped the National Assembly would consider his petitions during its end of year session, scheduled for 28 December.

"The deputies have the legal and human capacity to discuss and approve these laws," Mr Paya said.

Mr Paya won the European Union's 2002 Sakharov Prize for the Varela Project.

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