A top Cuban dissident jailed in the 2003 nationwide crackdown was freed Wednesday for health reasons, making him the seventh political prisoner released in the past two months.
Héctor Palacios, 64, who was serving a 25-year sentence, is the most high-profile dissident let out of prison since Defense Minister Raúl Castro took charge of the country when his brother Fidel Castro underwent surgery four months ago.
But human rights activists in Cuba warned that the releases, which could be interpreted as a goodwill gesture on the part of Havana, come at the same time that the government has increased repression against other opponents.
''The latest releases show a trend, but remember 300 are still in jail, which is the highest in the hemisphere and proportionately one of the highest in the world,'' said human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez. ``Today they released Héctor Palacios, but Monday they arrested independent journalist Ahmed Rodríguez and have held him incommunicado without charges.''
The Bush administration has rebuffed Raúl Castro's offers to open negotiations until conditions, including the release of political prisoners, are met.
''They are trying to create the false image that things are getting better,'' Sánchez said in a telephone interview from Havana.
Palacios was convicted of violating the Law for the Protection of National Independence and the Economy of Cuba, which essentially criminalizes political opposition to the Castro government.
He is the 16th prisoner caught up in the 2003 nationwide roundup of 75 political opponents to be released for health reasons.
''Personally, I feel good,'' Palacios said by telephone from Havana. ''But I feel a little hurt because I left a lot of dying people behind'' in prison, he said, noting that difficult conditions have sickened many prisoners.
Palacios fell ill shortly after his arrest and had been in a prison hospital for more than 2 ½ years for heart and circulatory problems, he said. ''It was a cell with a hospital bed,'' he said.
Government officials probably decided to release Palacios because they feared an internationally known dissident would die in custody, activists said.
The Cuban government has freed six other political prisoners in the past two months. Last month, it released five men arrested in July 2005 for their alleged participation in a protest at the French embassy.
''The government is trying to create certain expectations, but things are worse in Cuba,'' Palacios said. ``The other people who were released are people who were held without charges for a year and a half. That's not release -- that's holding someone for a year and a half just because.''
Palacios joined the dissident movement in 1993 and was director of the illegal Center for Independent Social Studies and advisor to the Round Table for Reflection. He worked as a coordinator for Concilio Cubano, a coalition of dissident groups, and was a leader of the All United movement.
In 1997, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for ''contemptuous'' statements about Fidel Castro.
''They sentenced me to 25 years,'' Palacios said. ``For me that was a death sentence.''