US cleric: Raul Castro concerned about Gross case

By Peter Orsi

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 2 2011 11:50 a.m. MST

In this picture released by Cuba's state newspaper Granma and taken by Estudios Revolucion, Cuba's President Raul Castro, right, talks with Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the New York-based National Council of Churches, an umbrella group of U.S. Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations, in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday Nov. 30, 2011. Kinnamon met Wednesday with Alan Gross, a U.S. man imprisoned in Cuba for bringing restricted communications equipment to the island. The woman at center is an unidentified translator.

Estudios Revolucion, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

HAVANA — Cuban President Raul Castro expressed humanitarian concern over difficulties facing the family of an American imprisoned on the island as an accused spy, a prominent U.S. religious leader who met with both men this week said on Friday.

National Council of Churches General Secretary Michael Kinnamon told a news conference that the case of Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor who has spent two years in custody for importing restricted communications equipment, came up during his meeting Wednesday with Castro.

But Kinnamon said he had no indication of any movement toward resolving the case, which Washington officials have said is a deal-breaker for any improvement in ties. Nor is there any sign of movement on disputes important to the Cuban government such as a review of the sentences for the "Cuban Five" intelligence agents held in the United States, he added.

Castro "understands the health issues especially with regards to (Gross') family, and he expressed concern for those also," Kinnamon said. "We did not talk about anything regarding release."

Gross' family and U.S. officials have appealed to Cuban officials to release him on humanitarian grounds, noting that he has lost more than 100 pounds (45 kilograms) behind bars and suffers from other ailments. Back home, his mother and daughter are both fighting cancer and his wife, Judy, has had to sell their home.

Saturday marks the two-year anniversary of the arrest of Gross, who says he was only trying to help the island's small Jewish community improve their Internet access. He was working as a subcontractor on a U.S. government-funded democracy-building program when he was detained.

Cuba considers such efforts to be a violation of its national sovereignty, and attempts to undermine its government. Rather than charging Gross with contraband, he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in March under a far more serious statute covering crimes against the state.

Kinnamon has led a delegation of 15 National Council representatives on a 10-day tour of the island, meeting with religious leaders, and high-level government officials and diplomats at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Kinnamon and another member also had a jailhouse interview with Gross for about 45 minutes to an hour on Wednesday.

"We talked about his sense of ... being unjustly accused, his concern for members of his family who are now quite ill," Kinnamon said Friday.

"This is of real concern to us, and we expressed to him our sympathy for that and our desire to address all of the obstacles which prevent normal relations."

The National Council of Churches has opposed the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba since 1968 and also lobbies for other changes in U.S. policy toward the island.

Kinnamon said he would push for a review of the criminal sentences against the Cuban Five, whose return is a top priority for Havana, when he meets with U.S. State Department officials back home.

The delegation was to leave later Friday.

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