Vatican envoy says prisoner amnesty in Cuba 'on table'

Papal envoy and cardinal Beniamino Stella delivers a speech during an event at the University of Havana to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II's visit to Cuba, in Havana, Cuba, February 8, 2023. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini/Pool

HAVANA (Reuters) - Papal envoy and cardinal Benjamin Stella said in Havana on Wednesday a potential amnesty for prisoners jailed in Cuba following anti-government protests in July 2021 was "on the table" but that the response did not depend on the Roman Catholic Church.

Stella, who arrived for an extended visit to the communist-run Caribbean island in late January, told reporters the Vatican had raised the topic of a potential amnesty for prisoners on multiple occasions.

"Obviously this has been a theme of our conversations," Stella said following a speech at Cuba´s University of Havana. "The theme is on the table, but the response does not depend on Cardinal Stella."

Stella´s comments come as Cuba faces sharp criticism from rights groups, the United States and the European Union following the imprisonment of hundreds of protesters after the July 11, 2021, riots, the largest since former Cuban leader Fidel Castro´s 1959 revolution.

"I very much ask ... that there be a positive response (for) amnesty, clemency, whatever it is called. The words are secondary, but it is important that the young people who at one time have expressed their thoughts ...can return to their homes," Stella said.

The Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Stella´s statements.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who was present in the university auditorium for Stella´s speech, did not speak but has previously defended the role of Cuba´s courts in upholding the country´s law.

Authorities in Cuba have said those arrested were guilty of crimes including public disorder, resisting arrest, robbery and vandalism.

The Vatican played a key role in brokering a historic resumption of ties between Cuba and the United States in 2016 under then-U.S. President Barack Obama.

In September 2015 Cuba pardoned 3,522 common prisoners in what it called a humanitarian gesture ahead of a visit by Pope Francis, repeating similar actions it took before two previous papal visits.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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