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Alan Gross, American jailed in Cuba, wants next birthday to be last in cell

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
updated 8:09 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alan Gross, center, visits with his wife, Judy, left, and attorney Scott Gilbert in 2013.
Alan Gross, center, visits with his wife, Judy, left, and attorney Scott Gilbert in 2013.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alan Gross, jailed in Cuba, says his May 2 birthday will be his last in Havana, lawyer says
  • Gross was convicted for bringing satellite communications to the island for USAID
  • He launched a hunger strike after details of agency's "Cuban Twitter" plan surfaced
  • Gross "will die in Cuba" without more effort from U.S. officials, lawyer says

(CNN) -- When Alan Gross reaches his 65th birthday next month, he will tell himself that it will be the last one he spends in a Cuban prison cell, Gross' attorney said Wednesday.

"His hunger strike took a toll on him," Gross' attorney Scott Gilbert told CNN during a trip to Havana to visit his client. "He told me yesterday that his birthday that he marks on May 2 would be the last birthday that he marks in Havana."

Gross is serving a 15-year sentence for bringing satellite communications equipment to Cuba as part of his work as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was convicted in March 2011.

U.S. officials said Gross was merely trying to help Cubans bypass the island's stringent restrictions on Internet access.

Alan Gross, at right with Rabbi Arthur Schneier, has been in Cuban custody since December 2009, when he was jailed while working as a subcontractor. Cuban authorities say Gross tried to set up illegal Internet connections on the island. Gross says he was just trying to help connect the Jewish community to the Internet. Former President Jimmy Carter and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have both traveled to Cuba on Gross' behalf. On December 17, Gross was released from Cuban prison. Alan Gross, at right with Rabbi Arthur Schneier, has been in Cuban custody since December 2009, when he was jailed while working as a subcontractor. Cuban authorities say Gross tried to set up illegal Internet connections on the island. Gross says he was just trying to help connect the Jewish community to the Internet. Former President Jimmy Carter and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have both traveled to Cuba on Gross' behalf. On December 17, Gross was released from Cuban prison.
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But Cuban authorities say Gross was part of a plot to create "a Cuban spring" and destabilize the island's single-party communist government.

"He was sent to Cuba five times on a government mission and on a government mission that was blatantly illegal under Cuba law," Gilbert said. "He was arrested, he was convicted, he was sentenced to 15 years in confinement, and to date, our government has done virtually nothing to obtain his release."

Earlier this month, Gross embarked on a nine-day hunger strike after reports surfaced that after his arrest, USAID had tried to create "a Cuban Twitter" using cellphone text messaging services on the island.

Cuban officials responded angrily, saying the text-messaging program showed that Washington was still trying to subvert the island's government.

While USAID and State Department officials defended the now-inactive program as a way to reach the Cuban people, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy said it had put Gross at greater risk.

Gross later said he was suspending his hunger strike after his mother pleaded him to begin eating again.

Since his arrest, Gross has suffered a slew of health problems, his attorney said, and lost over 100 pounds.

"Alan is confined to one room, 23 hours a day, he spends his day there in pajamas, he's fed meals in his room. He's let out for an hour a day, to exercise an hour a day in a small, walled courtyard where you can barely see the sky."

Cuban officials have said they want to negotiate Gross' case with representatives of the United States in conjunction with the fates of three Cuban intelligence operatives serving lengthy sentences in U.S. prisons.

But U.S. officials have called that effort blackmail and said the cases are separate matters because Gross was not working as a spy in Cuba.

The diplomatic impasse is taking its toll on Gross, Gilbert said.

"The White House has yet to engage on this issue; we need the president to make this a priority. Without that, Alan will die in Cuba," Gilbert said.

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