HAVANA (Reuters) - The number of political prisoners in Cuba has dropped to 167, the lowest total since the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power, a human rights group said on Monday.
The decline comes amid possible signs that the Cuban government is preparing to release more jailed dissidents, said Elizardo Sanchez, spokesman for the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights.
The 167 prisoners is a decline from 201 at the end of 2009 and "is the lowest number in 51 years," said Sanchez, who is a former political prisoner.
The commission, which issues a report on Cuban human rights every six months, said Cuba had more than 15,000 political prisoner 45 years ago.
It said the number has steadily dwindled over the past seven years as the government realized "it does not need to have so many political prisoners to maintain almost complete social control."
Fidel Castro ruled Cuba for 49 years before younger brother Raul Castro succeeded him as president in February 2008.
Sanchez said about 40 political prisoners have reported they are being questioned by authorities in interviews of the type that previously have preceded releases.
"We are receiving information from the prisons that they are interviewing them, preparing them and asking what they plan to do when they get out," he said.
Whether they will be freed remains to be seen, but the government has slightly relaxed its policies toward dissidents in recent months and begun a dialogue with the Catholic church that resulted in the release of one prisoner last month.
The church has said that, based on comments by President Raul Castro in a May meeting with Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, it hopes more will be let out of jail.
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos was scheduled to arrive in Havana late on Monday to support the church's efforts.
Cuba's changes in policy followed international criticism of Cuba's human rights following the Feb. 23 death of jailed hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo.
Sanchez thinks the government is trying to improve its image, but said the human rights situation in Cuba remains grim.
Cuban authorities, the commission report said, "continue violating in a systematic way all civil, political and economic rights."
"As long as the totalitarian state continues, the human rights situation in Cuba is not going to improve significantly," it said.
Cuba's state-run press warned on Saturday that another hunger striker, dissident Guillermo Farinas, is in danger of dying due to a blood clot in his neck and ongoing infections.
Farinas, a 48-year-old psychologist, is in the 131st day of his hunger strike, and his death likely would prompt more condemnation of Cuba's human rights.
Cuban leaders consider dissidents to be mercenaries for the United States and other enemies working to undermine the communist-led government.