By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - Former President Jimmy Carter met with leading Cuban dissidents on Wednesday and told them he expected to visit imprisoned U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross before leaving the communist-ruled island.
The meeting at the hotel in Old Havana where Carter and his wife Rosalynn have stayed during their three-day trip to Cuba included top critics of the Cuban government such as blogger Yoani Sanchez, Oswaldo Paya and Elizardo Sanchez.
Cuban leaders describe all of them as "mercenaries" working for arch-enemy the United States.
Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights, said Carter told them he came to Cuba with a full agenda that included the case of Gross, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence imposed this month by a Cuban court.
Carter's objectives included "the possible release of Alan Gross," Sanchez told reporters after the meeting.
"He said he plans to see Gross today," he said.
Carter, 86, came to Cuba on Monday at the invitation of the Cuban government to explore ways to improve U.S.-Cuba relations. He was to hold a news conference before leaving.
Jailed contractor Gross, 61, was arrested in December 2009 while working in Cuba under a secretive U.S. program to promote political change by providing Internet access to Cubans.
Cuba views Gross' work as part of ongoing U.S. attempts to subvert the government installed after a 1959 revolution.
He was put on trial by the government and sentenced to prison this month for "acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state." [ID:nN12265306]
His plight has damaged U.S.-Cuba relations, after a brief, initial warming under President Barack Obama, because Washington says he was only providing Internet to Jewish groups and committed no crime.
U.S. officials have said there will be no further rapprochement until he is freed.
RAUL CASTRO READY TO TALK WITH WASHINGTON
Carter, returning to Cuba after a groundbreaking 2002 visit, met on Tuesday with President Raul Castro, who repeated his previous offer to meet with the U.S. government and talk over "any topic"
The former U.S. president told reporters on Tuesday he had spoken with Cuban officials about Gross but was not there "to take him out of the country."
Cuban officials had reportedly told Carter before his visit that Gross would not be leaving Cuba with him.
Carter has acted as an unofficial diplomatic trouble-shooter in the past, including last August when he secured the release of an American jailed in North Korea.
Apart from discussing Gross, the dissidents said they talked with Carter about the situation in Cuba, including their complaints about the lack of democracy and human rights.
"It was a brief, formal, affectionate meeting and it was a piece of Cuba that we gave him," Yoani Sanchez said.
Carter, she said, heard "the perspective of each one on the reality here."
The former president, who served from 1977 to 1981, met separately with 10 recently released political prisoners.
They had been jailed since a 2003 crackdown on opposition and were freed by Castro in a deal brokered by the Catholic Church. Unlike others released under the same agreement, they refused to leave the country and go to Spain, as the government wanted them to do.
(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Philip Barbara)