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Cuba to release 3,500 prisoners, prior to pope's visit

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Desmond Boylan/AP

(Read caption) A sculpture of revolutionary hero Ernesto 'Che' Guevara is lit up on a government building in Revolution Square beside an altar under construction ahead of Pope Francis's Mass in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015.

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Cuba has announced it will release more than 3,500 prisoners ahead of next week’s visit by Pope Francis – the largest official pardon since the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro.  

Among the 3,522 to be released are prisoners older than 60, those younger than 20 with no previous criminal history, the chronically ill, women, some who were due for conditional release in 2016, and foreigners whose repatriation could be assured, reports Cuba's state-run newspaper Granma.

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According to the paper, those convicted of serious crimes like murder, child abuse, rape, robbery with violence, drug trafficking, or violations of state security will not be released.

Cuban cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino said decisions about release were based on compassionate grounds, such as family problems and health issues rather than the type of crimes committed. “It’s a humanitarian gesture,” he told CNN.

This is the third time Cuba has granted inmates freedom before a papal visit. In 1998, Cuba freed about 300 prisoners, including 101 political prisoners, ahead of Pope John Paul’s visit. In 2012, ahead of a visit by Pope Benedict XVI, Cuba released 2,900 prisoners.

The most notable recent release occurred in January 2015, when Havana pardoned 53 political prisoners as part of the breakthrough December 17 US-Cuba agreement and included many known to international human rights groups as "prisoners of conscience," Reuters reported.

The pope is expected to meet with Fidel Castro – if the former Cuban leader's health allows – during his visit from September 19 to 22.

The Roman Catholic church has maintained a steady relationship with Cuba since the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro that established communist rule in Cuba, the BBC reports.  

Pope Francis is credited with brokering last December's diplomatic deal after the decades-old enmity between Cuba and the US.

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"Both President Raul Castro and President Obama recognized and explicitly thanked the Holy Father for his gesture," Monsignor Jose Felix Perez of the Cuban Catholic Bishops' Conference, told Reuters in Havana.

"His mediation, without a doubt, was effective and in line with the Christian spirit that always brings out reconciliation as the solution to conflicts," Perez said.