Alan Gross not part of Cuban prisoner amnesty
HAVANA -- An American government subcontractor jailed in Cuba for crimes against the state is not among nearly 3,000 prisoners granted amnesty by President Raul Castro on Friday, said a senior Foreign Ministry official.
"Alan Gross is not on the list," Josefina Vidal told The Associated Press, dashing the hopes of Gross' supporters in the United States, who have been pleading with Cuban authorities to release the 62-year-old Maryland native on humanitarian grounds.
In a speech to lawmakers, Castro said his country would pardon 2,900 prisoners, including some convicted of political crimes. Castro cited an upcoming visit by Pope Benedict XVI among the reasons for the amnesty, saying the humanitarian act showed Cuba's strength.
He said 86 foreign prisoners from 25 countries would be freed, and that diplomats would be notified shortly.
Vidal heads the Foreign Ministry's North American affairs division.
Castro said the list is filled with inmates who, like Gross, are more than 60 years old or are ailing. Others included in the amnesty are many female inmates and young people who don't have long criminal records.
Those convicted of serious crimes like murder, espionage or drug trafficking are not be part of the amnesty.
Gross was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in jail for crimes against the state. The case has frozen already icy relations between Washington and Havana.
Gross's family concedes he was on a USAID-funded democracy building program, but insists his goal was simply to help the island's tiny Jewish community gain better access to the Internet. They say he spoke almost no Spanish and came to Havana repeatedly, hardly the stuff of a master spy.
Cuban officials say the USAID programs seek to overthrow the government.
Gross's supporters have appealed to Castro for a humanitarian release. They say Gross -- who was obese when he was arrested -- has lost more than 100 pounds in jail and is now gaunt and increasingly depressed. Meanwhile, his daughter and elderly mother have both been diagnosed with cancer.
American Jewish leaders have also appealed for Gross's release, saying Hanukkah festivities which began this week were a perfect opportunity.
Cuba this year freed the last of some 75 political prisoners arrested in a notorious 2003 sweep. While others remain jailed for politically motivated crimes, most of those were involved in acts of violence like hijacking.
Rights group Amnesty International no longer includes any Cuban prisoners among its list of "prisoners of conscience" around the world.
No details on when the releases will occur were given.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)