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Alan Gross not part of Cuban prisoner amnesty

By Paul Haven

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 23 2011 6:30 p.m. MST

Cuba's President Raul Castro, center, smiles as he talks to parliament members during a parliamentary meeting in Havana, Cuba, Friday Dec. 23, 2011. Cuba's parliament met Friday in one of its twice-yearly sessions to get an update from President Raul Castro on the island's economic situation after a year of free-market reforms. During the closing speech Castro announced Cuba's supreme governing body has granted a pardon to nearly 3,000 prisoners, including some convicted of political crimes, though no mention was made of Alan Gross, an American government subcontractor arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in jail for crimes against the state. Center top is Luidmila Alamo Pena, secretary general of the Young Communist League.

Ismael Francisco, Prensa Latina, Associated Press

HAVANA — An American government subcontractor jailed in Cuba for crimes against the state is not among nearly 3,000 prisoners granted amnesty by President Raul Castro on Friday, said a senior Foreign Ministry official.

"Alan Gross is not on the list," Josefina Vidal told The Associated Press, dashing the hopes of Gross' supporters in the United States, who have been pleading with Cuban authorities to release the 62-year-old Maryland native on humanitarian grounds. Vidal heads the Foreign Ministry's North American affairs division.

In a speech to lawmakers, Castro said his country would pardon 2,900 prisoners, including some convicted of political crimes. Castro cited an upcoming visit by Pope Benedict XVI among the reasons for the amnesty, saying the humanitarian act was "a demonstration of the generosity and strength of the revolution."

He said 86 foreign prisoners from 25 countries would be freed, and that diplomats would be notified shortly.

The Cuban leader said the list is filled with inmates who, like Gross, are more than 60 years old or are ailing. Others included in the amnesty are many female inmates and young people who don't have long criminal records.

Those convicted of serious crimes like murder, espionage or drug trafficking are not be part of the amnesty.

Gross was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in jail for crimes against the state. The case has frozen already icy relations between Washington and Havana.

Gross's family concedes he was on a USAID-funded democracy building program, but insists his goal was simply to help the island's tiny Jewish community gain better access to the Internet. They say he spoke almost no Spanish and came to Havana repeatedly, hardly the stuff of a master spy.

Cuban officials say the USAID programs seek to overthrow the government.

Gross's supporters have appealed to Castro for a humanitarian release. They say Gross — who was obese when he was arrested — has lost more than 100 pounds in jail and is now gaunt and increasingly depressed. Meanwhile, his daughter and elderly mother have both been diagnosed with cancer.

American Jewish leaders have also appealed for Gross's release, saying Hanukkah festivities which began this week were a perfect opportunity.

Other high-profile inmates include two El Salvadoran men convicted of taking part in a bombing spree against Havana tourist hotels in the 1990s that killed an Italian tourist. The men were originally sentenced to death, but had their sentences reduced to life in prison earlier this year.

Cuba this year freed the last of some 75 political prisoners arrested in a notorious 2003 sweep. While others remain jailed for politically motivated crimes, most of those were involved in acts of violence like hijacking.

Rights group Amnesty International no longer includes any Cuban prisoners among its list of "prisoners of conscience" around the world.

Benedict is due to arrive in Cuba in March, though exact dates have not been announced. His visit will be the first by a pontiff since Pope John Paul II's historic tour in 1998.

Paul Haven can be reached at www.twitter.com/paulhaven/

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