Barack Obama (L) and Raul Castro (R).jpg
Photograph: EPA/Alejandro Ernesto

Cuban President Raul Castro stood up for his country's position on human rights in an unprecedented press conference Monday in Havana at which he took questions along side US President Barack Obama.

Castro and Obama appeared before reporters for about one hour inside the Palace of the Revolution on the second day of the US leader's historic visit to the socialist island.

Castro stood his ground by criticizing the decades-old US embargo on Cuba and by talking about the thorny issue of human rights in the Caribbean country. He indirectly denied that there were political prisoners in Cuba, as human rights organizations insist.

"Give me a list of the political prisoners and I will release them immediately. Just mention the list. What political prisoners?" Castro demanded after an American journalist asked a question on the issue.

He said any political prisoners would be released on the spot if anyone gave him a valid list of such people.

Raul Castro, who rose to power in 2006 when his brother and predecessor Fidel Castro fell ill, never appears before reporters and is generally reluctant to appear in public.

Cuban authorities have traditionally denied having any political prisoners and accuse imprisoned dissidents of having violated the country's laws and of being "mercenaries" whose activities to destabilize the country are financed from abroad.

Human rights organizations, however, insist that there are indeed political prisoners in Cuba.

"Right now there are at least 80 names," Elizardo Sanchez, spokesman for the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), an umbrella organization of dissident groups, told dpa.

Several of the prisoners that the CCDHRN refers to have formally been convicted of crimes like treason or espionage for a foreign power.

But there also are the names of 11 dissidents who were sentenced years ago to long years in prison and who have since been released on parole.

Sanchez was sceptical about Castro's comments, saying he expects "dodging" tactics from Cuban authorities when they are handed the list of political prisoners.

"We are not too optimistic because the government sometimes makes promises it does not keep," he said.

Castro further rejected what he regards as foreign interference with his country's sovereignty. This includes, according to him, the support that the United States has given Cuban dissidents for decades and demands for democratic reforms formulated by Washington.

"Changing whatever needs to be changed is a task that is exclusively for Cubans," Castro said.

"We need to put in practice the art of civilized coexistence," Castro said.

He said both countries are curently building a new type of relationship, "of a kind that has never existed between Cuba and the United States."

The two countries broke off their relations in 1961, two years after the revolution led by Fidel Castro was successful in ousting dictator Fulgencio Batista. Since then, they have been at loggerheads over almost everything.

One of the most tense situations came in 1962 after Soviet missiles were deployed on the island. Ideological opposition and hostility between the two countries came to a head and put the world on the brink of nuclear war.

Castro also rejected criticism over the status of civil liberties in Cuba.

"We defend human rights," he said.

Havana has traditionally linked human rights to collective achievements like universal access to health and education, which are guaranteed on the island, and rejects accusations that the Cuban government does not respect civil liberties, espeicially those of critics of the Cuban political system.

"You cannot use that argument in political confrontation," Castro complained.

Castro, 84, then joked about his presence before reporters.

"That's a lot of questions for me. I think questions should be addressed to President Obama," he said.

"I know that, if I stayed here, you would ask 500 questions."

Ahead of their press conference, both presidents had held an official meeting that lasted about two hours. Obama and Castro discussed further steps in the improvement in ties that they formally launched in December 2014. This was the third meeting between the two men since then.

Obama's visit to Cuba is the latest milestone in the historic reconciliation between the two former arch-enemies, who in July restored diplomatic ties they had not held for 54 years.

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