Cuba to hear jailed American Gross' appeal July 22

By PETER ORSI | July 7, 2011 | 3:29 PM EDT

HAVANA (AP) — Cuba's Supreme Court has set a July 22 date to consider an appeal by U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of illegally importing communications equipment, state television announced Thursday.

"The accused and his lawyer were informed of the decision this morning ... as well as U.S. authorities," said an official message that was also posted on government websites.

The appeal is Gross' final legal recourse, and after that it would be left to the Cuban government to consider whether to free him for humanitarian or political reasons.

Gross' daughter and elderly mother both have cancer, and State Department officials and his family have expressed hope that Cuba might release him on humanitarian grounds.

Gross, 61, of Montgomery County, Maryland, was working on a USAID-funded democracy-building program when he was arrested in December 2009. On March 11 he was sentenced to 15 years after being convicted of illegally importing communications equipment.

Cuba considers such programs to be aimed at undermining the government, and he was convicted under a statute outlawing "acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state."

"Considerable evidence from witnesses, experts and documentation demonstrated his direct participation in a subversive project of the U.S. government to try to destroy the revolution," Thursday's official note read.

Gross has said he was working to improve Internet communications for Cuba's Jewish community, though Jewish leaders denied dealing with him.

The case has been a sticking point for relations that have largely been on ice since shortly after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, with Cuba calling Gross a spy and the U.S. saying no thaw is possible while he remains behind bars.

Cuban officials have publicly ruled out the idea of a swap for five Cuban agents sent to monitor militant anti-Castro Cuban exile groups in the United States and sentenced to lengthy prison terms there.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Interests Section, which Washington maintains in Havana instead of an embassy, declined to comment immediately on Thursday's announcement pending instructions from Washington.

According to people who have been able to visit him at a military hospital in Havana, Gross, about 50 pounds overweight when he was arrested, has lost nearly 100 pounds in custody and is generally in good spirits though anxious to return home.

He has received periodic visits by U.S. diplomats on the island; by a U.S. delegation last month that included Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile and a member of Gross' Jewish congregation back in Washington, and in March by former President Jimmy Carter.

The case also sparked a congressional fight in Washington with Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, holding up $20 million in U.S. money slated for democracy programs in Cuba and suggesting they were responsible for Gross' imprisonment.

That drew the ire of Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuba-born Republican who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She accused her Senate counterpart of failing to understand what she called "the brutal nature of the Havana tyranny."