11:51 PM EDT, August 5, 2011
Cuba's Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Maryland contractor Alan Gross to be released from a 15-year prison sentence for alleged spying.
The court claimed that Gross, of Potomac, who was arrested in December 2009 after distributing computer equipment on the communist island, was part of a U.S. campaign "aimed at destabilizing the country," according to a statement published Friday on the Cuban government-run website Cubadebate.
The U.S. State Department deplored the ruling and called on President Raul Castro's government to release Gross immediately. Acting spokesperson Mark Toner said in a statement that the U.S. will continue to use every available diplomatic channel to press for his release.
The ruling comes as President Barack Obama has pledged to improve relations and loosen travel with Cuba, which has been under a U.S. trade embargo for almost five decades. While the court's decision is "disappointing," the Cuban government may still release Gross for humanitarian reasons, said Wayne Smith, director of the Cuba program at the Washington-based Center for International Policy.
"The Cubans can say that he was guilty of what he was accused of, but they can come out looking good if they release him," Smith, who was chief of mission at the U.S. Interest Section in Havana from 1979 to 1982, said in a phone interview.
Gross worked on the Caribbean island for Development Alternatives International, a subcontractor for the State Department's Agency for International Development. Gross, 62, has lost about 90 pounds in prison and suffers from health problems, according to his lawyer Peter Kahn.
"Alan Gross has done nothing more than help peaceful people gain access to the Internet," DAI's chief executive officer, James Boomgard, said in an emailed statement after the ruling. "We urge that the Cuban government take into account the medical situation confronting Alan and his family, and quickly allow him to come home."
Obama lifted travel restrictions to Cuba established under former President George W. Bush, allowing educational and church groups greater freedom to visit the country and letting higher education institutions sponsor travel to Cuba in January for course work. American citizens are also allowed to send as much as $500 every three months to Cuban citizens who aren't part of the Castro administration or members of the Communist Party.
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