Washington — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says the United States welcomes the announcement that Cuba will release 52 political dissidents who have been imprisoned since 2003, describing the move as “a positive sign.”

Speaking with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh at the State Department July 8, Clinton said the apparent agreement between Cuban authorities and the Roman Catholic Church that led to the announcement is encouraging.

“We welcome this. We think that’s a positive sign. It’s something that is overdue but nevertheless very welcome,” she said.

According to press reports, the Cuban government agreed to release the prisoners after mediation by Cuba’s Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega. The 52 prisoners are reportedly the last among a group of 75 who were jailed during a 2003 government crackdown against the political opposition.

The move follows the death in February of dissident Orlando Zapata, who had been on a hunger strike in prison, and the continued hunger strike by Guillermo Fariñas, who has been protesting Cuba’s imprisonment of political activists.

Spanish diplomatic sources told reporters that Spain will accept all 52 of the prisoners, with five arriving immediately and the rest to follow in three or four months. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos is in Cuba on a visit that he said is in support of the Vatican’s mediation efforts with the Cuban government.

Clinton said in her remarks that she had spoken with Moratinos late on July 7.

In its latest Human Rights Report, released March 11, the State Department criticized Cuba as “a totalitarian state that does not tolerate opposition to official policy” and said there were at least 194 political prisoners, as well as up to 5,000 people who had been convicted of potential “dangerousness” without being charged with any specific crime.

President Obama called for “an end to the repression, for the immediate, unconditional release of all political prisoners in Cuba, and for respect for the basic rights of the Cuban people” in a March 24 statement.

The president said he desires “a new era in relations” between Cuba and the United States and remains “committed to supporting the simple desire of the Cuban people to freely determine their future and to enjoy the rights and freedoms that define the Americas, and that should be universal to all human beings.”