A hearing before Cuba's Supreme Court on Friday offers jailed American subcontractor Alan Gross a last chance to get his 15-year sentence for sneaking communications equipment onto the island dismissed.
The case of the 62-year-old Maryland native, who has been in jail since his arrest in December 2009, has undermined already faltering efforts at rapprochement between the Cold War enemies.
Gross was working on a USAID program meant to foster democracy on the Communist-run island, and Cuba considers such programs subversive, noting that until recently U.S. government literature overtly described their aim as fostering regime change.
American officials say privately they hold little hope of Gross' conviction being thrown out altogether following oral arguments Friday, but they say the hearing could do something else: clear the way for the Cuban government to release him on humanitarian grounds.
Cuban officials have been quietly telling their American counterparts for months that they are sympathetic to Gross' personal ordeal: He has lost 100 pounds while in jail, his 27-year-old daughter has been diagnosed with breast cancer, his elderly mother is also ailing, his wife is recovering from surgery and the family has been forced to sell their home.
But they have also indicated the legal process must play out before they even consider a presidential pardon or other form of humanitarian release. U.S. consular officials are expected to be present at Friday's hearing, as is Gross' Cuban attorney. Gross' American lawyer, Peter Kahn, issued a statement Wednesday saying his client's wife, Judy, will not be able to attend because she is still recovering from surgery for an undisclosed ailment.
It is not clear when the Cuban high court might rule following the hearing, though the tribunal usually issues decisions within a couple of weeks.
A senior State Department official told The Associated Press that Washington has warned Cuban leaders that progress cannot be made in bilateral relations until Gross is freed.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to a lack of authorization to discuss the case publicly, expressed frustration with the mixed message the U.S. has received from Cuban officials in recent months.
"Either they change their mind every day, which is possible, or they are giving different people different messages, or they are confused, or they are disorganized," the official said, adding that the U.S. had never received an outright promise that Gross would be freed.
"I've gotten, 'We will at a certain point be able to talk about his release,'" the official said.
One American who could play a key role in helping bring Gross home is former President Jimmy Carter, who met with the jailed contractor when he visited the island in March. Despite being showered with kind words by both Castro brothers, the 86-year-old former president left Cuba empty-handed, with Gross still in jail.
Jennifer McCoy, who directs the Carter Center Americas Program in Atlanta, Georgia, told the AP that the former president has stayed in touch with Cuban leaders since his trip, and has reiterated his concern.
"We continue to be in contact with the Cuban government about the case, as well as a number of other issues," she said. "We're waiting to see the outcome of the appeal, and we hope it will be decided soon."
Gross' arrest gave Cuba a chance to shine a light on the $20 million a year USAID programs, which are backed by many in the Cuban-American community but which Havana consider an attack on its sovereignty. Gross was working for a Bethesda, Maryland-based subcontractor called DAI on a contract worth nearly $600,000.
The case has led to a debate in Washington over the value and wisdom of such programs, with Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, putting a legislative hold on funding for 2011. Kerry said last week he was working with the State Department and USAID to resolve the issue and that the hold would likely end soon.
Gross has acknowledged illegally carrying satellite communication equipment into the country, apparently to set up an unofficial Internet platform to circumvent heavily state-controlled Web access.
His lawyer says he was only trying to help the island's tiny Jewish community. Those close to the case say Gross should never have been convicted under a Cuban statute known as Article 91, which equates his activities with crimes against the state.
They say that while he expressed contrition for his actions at his March trial, Gross said he never meant any harm to the government and should have been judged on lesser charges. Even if his conviction on those lesser charges were to be upheld, Gross' age, time served and good behavior in prison would make him eligible for release.
"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," said Kahn, Gross' American lawyer.
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