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Twin dissidents among political prisoners freed by Cuba

Havana (AFP) - A pair of 18-year-old twin brothers are among the political prisoners released by Cuba as it moves towards normalizing ties with the United States, an activist said.

Cuba has begun setting free some of the 53 political prisoners it agreed to release as part of the historic thawing of ties, the US State Department announced Tuesday.

Among them were the two brothers arrested in December 2012 in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, while protesting outside a police station to demand release of their older brother.

"The brothers Diango Vargas Martin and Bianco Vargas Martin have been released. This is 100 percent confirmed," Elizardo Sanchez, the head of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Committee, told AFP.

Later Sanchez confirmed the release of another jailed dissident Enrique Figuerola Miranda, 35.

The brothers were tried in 2013 for disturbing public order and violence against an officer, according to the commission.

Sanchez said the twins and their older brother, Alexei, are members of the opposition Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), which is active especially in the southeast of the Communist-run island.

UNPACU leader Jose Daniel Ferrer could not be contacted immediately by phone. But he confirmed on Twitter that three prisoner releases had been carried out in one day.

US President Barack Obama ordered his administration to initiate steps to normalize relations with Cuba last month in a deal that included the list of 53 political prisoners.

- More change coming? -

Obama also wants to eventually persuade Congress to lift the 54-year-old US trade embargo on Cuba which he has described as "self-defeating."

But critics have raised concerns about continuing abuses of human rights by the communist authorities on the island of 11 million. The government does not guarantee basic rights such as assembly and free speech; political parties other than the Communist Party are illegal.

The US State Department has said that as part of the process of normalizing ties with Cuba, the US would "continue to press the Cuban government to uphold its international obligations and to respect the rights of Cubans to peacefully assemble and express their ideas and opinions."

But many conservative US lawmakers, led by Senator Marco Rubio, who is Cuban-American, have dismissed the change in Cuba policy as appeasing a dictator.

Neither the Cuban government nor official Cuban media have reported on Tuesday's releases.

And the US State Department gave no figures on the number of prisoners freed nor their identities.

Havana has long accused dissidents of being US "mercenaries."

Senior officials from both countries are due to meet to start the process of normalizing ties in Havana later in January.

The US assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs, Roberta Jacobson, has confirmed she will attend.

Cuba's economy remains centrally planned, cash-strapped and dysfunctional. Most Cubans earn the equivalent of around $20 a month, and putting food on the table is a challenge. The country depends on imports for most of its food and energy needs.

President Raul Castro has allowed more Cubans to become self-employed to trim state payrolls. But his government is determined not to see its system unravel completely.