Jailed American addresses Cuban top court in appeal

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 22, 2011 12:27 PM
Jailed American addresses Cuban top court in appeal

By Nelson Acosta

HAVANA (Reuters) - Imprisoned U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross addressed Cuba's Supreme Court on Friday during the hearing of his appeal against a 15-year sentence for crimes against the Cuban state, authorities said.

Gross, 62, was allowed to speak for himself at the closed-door hearing after his defense lawyer presented oral arguments against his conviction and sentencing in March following his arrest in Havana in late 2009.

The detention and jailing of the American aid contractor, whom Cuba's government has accused of being part of U.S. government efforts to subvert communist rule on the island, has soured U.S.-Cuban relations and stalled U.S. President Barack Obama's moves to forge better ties.

Gross was detained in Cuba while working on a secretive pro-democracy program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Aid that sought to build an Internet platform on the Caribbean island whose communist authorities tightly control access to the World Wide Web.

Gross denies his work was a threat to the Cuban government, saying he was only trying to improve Internet connectivity for the island's small Jewish community.

"Alan Phillip Gross, exercising the right to speak granted by the court, laid out the arguments that he considered relevant and expressed thanks for the chance to explain them personally to the judges of the People's Supreme Court," an official Cuban statement said in a note on Friday's hearing.

But it gave no details of what Gross told the court.

Foreign journalists were not allowed into the hearing, which was attended by Gross's Cuban lawyer and three U.S. diplomats from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

Cuba's highest court would announce its "definitive sentence in the next days", the Cuban statement said.

Local and international experts believe there is only a slight chance the Cuban Supreme Court would throw out the lower court's conviction of Gross and set him free. They said it was more likely to uphold the verdict and, possibly, to reduce the sentence.

The U.S. government and Gross's lawyers and family have called for his immediate release on humanitarian grounds.

Gross's lawyers and family have said his daughter and mother-in-law have been battling cancer.

Gross's wife Judy, who did not attend Friday's hearing, has said the imprisoned U.S. contractor has health problems and has lost 100 pounds (45 kg) in jail.

(Writing by Marc Frank and Pascal Fletcher; editing by Mohammad Zargham)