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Cuba-US relations at stake in American contractor’s trial

US aid contractor Alan Gross and his wife Judy pose for a picture in Jerusalem in the spring of 2005, in this family photograph released on 2010.

Future prospects for improving US-Cuba ties will be at stake when Cuba's highest court hears an appeal on Friday from jailed US aid contractor Alan Gross against his 15-year sentence for crimes against the state.

Gross, 62, was arrested in Havana in December 2009 while working on a secretive USAID-funded pro-democracy program that sought to establish an Internet platform in communist-ruled Cuba, where access to the Internet is tightly controlled.

His detention by Cuba, which accuses Washington of trying to subvert its socialist system by promoting new communications technologies on the island, put a brake on cautious moves by President Barack Obama to foster a better relationship with Havana after decades of Cold War era enmity.

Gross's sentencing in March by Cuban judges to 15 years in prison for crimes against the state dealt a further blow to chances of a significant rapprochement. Washington condemned it as an "injustice" and US officials have made clear further moves to improve ties would require his immediate release.

The aid contractor denies his work in Cuba was hostile to the government there, saying he was only trying to improve Internet connectivity for the island's small Jewish community."Friday's hearing affords Alan another opportunity to reiterate, through his Cuban counsel, that his actions on the island were never intended to be – and in fact never were – a threat to the Cuban government," Gross's lawyer, Peter J. Kahn, said in statement.

"The family remains hopeful that Cuba's high court will render a decision that will allow Alan to be released immediately, having already served nearly 20 months in a Cuban prison," Kahn added.

Hopes for the American's release have centered on his reported ill health – his wife Judy says he has lost 100 pounds (45 kg) in jail – and on the family's direct appeal to Cuban President Raul Castro for a humanitarian pardon on the grounds that both his daughter and mother-in-law have been battling cancer. Kahn said wife Judy Gross would be unable to attend Friday's hearing in Havana as she was herself recuperating from surgery for an undisclosed ailment.

The US government, whose diplomats in Havana will attend the hearing, said it would continue to use "all diplomatic channels" to press for Gross's release."We again call on the Government of Cuba to immediately and unconditionally release Alan Gross," State Department spokeswoman Heide Fulton told . Obama had initially eased US travel restrictions to Cuba and allowed a free flow of remittances to the island as part of measures to increase contacts. But more significant moves to relax long-running US economic sanctions against the island are unlikely without movement in the Gross case.

Cuban authorities tightly control Internet access on the island and Cuba's security services view new communications technology and social media as the latest battlefront in the long ideological war between the two nations.

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Tags:  Alan Gross  Cuba  US  USAID  





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