Alan Phillip Gross
Alan Phillip Gross (born May 2, 1949) is a U.S. international development professional. In December 2009 he was arrested while in Cuba working as a U.S. government subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of a program funded under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. He was prosecuted in 2011 after being accused of crimes against the Cuban state for bringing satellite phones and computer equipment (to members of Cuba’s Jewish community) without the permit required under Cuban law. After being accused of working for American intelligence services in January 2010, he was ultimately convicted for “acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state" in March 2011, and is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba.
Life and career
Gross was born in New York and later moved to Maryland. He studied social work at the University of Maryland and the Virginia Commonwealth University. He had a long career as an international development worker who had been active in some 50 countries and territories across the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, including Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was setting up satellite communications systems to circumvent state-controlled channels.
In 2001, he founded Joint Business Development Center, a small company earning less than US$70,000 in 2009, which supports "Internet connectivity in locations where there [is] little or no access", according to the New York Times. Gross and his wife Judy lived in Potomac, a Washington, D.C. suburb. The couple has two daughters.
Arrest and trial
Gross was working with Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), a contractor working with USAID who had won a US$6 million U.S. government contract for the program in which Gross was involved, a controversial "democracy-promotion program" that ballooned under the Bush administration, to provide communications equipment to break the Cuban government's 'information blockade'. Gross received more than US$500,000, despite the fact that he spoke little Spanish and had not worked in Cuba before.
USAID's US$20 million Cuba program, authorized by a law calling for regime change in Cuba, has been criticized repeatedly in congressional reports as being wasteful and ineffective, and putting people in danger. Funding was held up briefly in 2010 over concerns following Gross′s arrest.
Before his arrest, Gross visited Cuba four times in five months in 2009 on a tourist visa, according to American officials to deliver computer and satellite equipment to three Jewish community groups. In December 2009, according to Development Alternatives Inc., he was on a follow-up trip, researching how the groups were making use of the equipment he had previously distributed to them. As reported by the Jewish Daily Forward, Cuba's small Jewish community of less than 2,000 people who mainly live in Havana, enjoys religious freedom, the possibility to emigrate to Israel, and has fairly good relations with the government under Raúl Castro, but has little influence, making observers wonder why the United States provides material to them under a USAID program that usually targets dissidents. According to a Latin America specialist for the Council on Foreign Relations it is possible that Gross’s mission was useful only in as much as it satisfied Congressional demand to take action in Cuba.
In January 2012, it was reported that Cuban authorities claim that Gross has visited Cuba as early as 2004, delivering a video camera to a leading Freemason who later declared that he had been a Cuban intelligence agent since 2000.
Gross filed reports for USAID of his four visits to Cuba in 2009. The report of the fifth and final trip was written by a representative of Gross' company. A review of the reports was revealed on February 12, 2012, by the Associated Press (AP). According to the reports, Gross was aware of the risks he was taking. AP reports that Gross did not identify himself as a representative of the U.S. government, but claimed to be a member of a Jewish humanitarian group. To escape Cuban authorities' detection, he enlisted the help of American Jews to transport electronic equipment, instructing them to pack items a piece at a time in carry-on luggage, and also travelled with American Jewish humanitarian groups doing missions on the island so he could intercede with Cuban authorities if questions arose. Gross declared that he was thoroughly inspected by the customs officials at Jose Marti International Airport when entering the country, and that he declared all of the items in his possession. The equipment he brought to Cuba on his fourth trip, most, but not all of which is legal in Cuba, included 12 iPods, 11 BlackBerry Curve smartphones, three MacBooks, six 500-gigabyte external drives, three Internet satellite phones known as BGANs, three routers, three controllers, 18 wireless access points, 13 memory sticks, three VoIP phones, and networking switches. In his report on this trip, marked as final, he summarized: “Wireless networks established in three communities; about 325 users”. However, he went to Cuba for a fifth time in late November 2009, and was arrested 11 days later. When he was arrested, he was carrying a high-tech chip, intended to keep satellite phone transmissions from being located within 250 miles (400 kilometres). The chip is not available on the open market. It is provided most frequently to the CIA and the Defense Department, but can also be obtained by the State Department, which oversees USAID. Asked how Gross obtained the card, a USAID spokesman said that the agency played no role in helping Gross acquire equipment.
Gross was arrested on December 3, 2009 at the Havana Airport. He was jailed at Villa Marista prison, a detention center. According to classified U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks which show that the arrest came amid heightened tensions between Cuba and the U.S., Gross spent 25 days in jail before receiving his first visit from a U.S. diplomat, but was visited by a Cuban attorney earlier and was allowed to telephone his wife three days after his arrest on December 6 for the first time and again on December 23. During the one hour visit by the U.S. consul general in Havana on December 28, 2009, Gross stated that Cuban officials were "treating him 'with respect', though his interrogation had been 'very intense at first', lasting an average of two hours a day". According to the cable, the cell Gross had to share with two other men had a TV and a fan.
The attorney who visited Gross in jail, Armanda Nuria Piñero Sierra, was hired as Gross' lawyer and handled his trial and appeals. She also represents the families of five Cubans held in U.S. prisons, after being convicted in 2001 on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage against U.S. military installations, leading to the immediate speculation after Gross' arrest, that Cuba wanted to swap him for the five Cubans. In October 2011, it was revealed that the U.S. State Department had offered to let one of them who had been released from prison in the U.S. on probation serve the remainder of his probation in Cuba, in exchange for Gross' release.
US Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Gross' treatment was an attempt by Cuba to get a 'concession'. Many Jewish groups, including the Conference of Presidents of Major North American Organizations and the American Jewish Committee, protested against his detention.
In January 2010, Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the Cuban National Assembly, said that Gross was "contracted to work for American intelligence services", which was denied by both the U.S. government and Gross′s attorneys. Gross's trial was set on March 4, 2011. More than a year later, Gross was charged in February 2011 not with espionage but with "Acts against the Independence and Territorial Integrity of the State" ("Actos Contra la Independencia o la Integridad Territorial del Estado"), facing up to 20 years in prison.
On March 12, 2011, Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison. According to the Cuban News Agency, he had been part of a "subversive project of the U.S. government that aimed to destroy the Revolution through the use of communication systems out of the control of authorities". Gross′ wife attended the trial with her attorney. Three U.S. officials also attended as observers.
Reactions and advocacy
After the sentence was passed, Gross' American attorney Peter J. Kahn said in a written statement: "The Gross family is devastated by the verdict and harsh sentence announced today by the Cuban authorities. Having already served a 15-month sentence in a Cuban prison, Alan and his family have paid an enormous personal price in the long-standing political feud between Cuba and the United States". Kahn pledged to "continue to work with Alan's Cuban attorney in exploring any and all options available to him, including the possibility of an appeal". He also called for Gross' immediate release on humanitarian grounds.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor responded to the ruling, saying that it "adds another injustice to Alan Gross's ordeal", and that "he has already spent too many days in detention and should not spend one more", and asked for "the immediate release of Mr. Gross so that he can return home to his wife and family".
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that Gross had been "unjustly jailed for far too long... He needs to be able to leave Cuba and return home", adding "this is a matter of great personal pain to his family and concern to the U.S. government".
Several members of Congress have visited Cuba to see Gross.
Gross's wife, after fighting to persuade the organized Jewish community to rally behind a humanitarian campaign to free her husband, has publicly criticized President Barack Obama and U.S. policy toward Cuba. In a March 13, 2012 interview with Politico, after having hired the public relations company Burson-Marsteller on the State Department′s recommendation, she called her husband a "pawn" in a "failed policy" between the Cuban and American governments, adding "the trial wasn’t about him. It was about USAID and U.S. policy towards Cuba". Gross reportedly insists that his "goals were not the same as the program that sent [him]," and called on the Obama administration to meet Cuba at the negotiating table to solve bilateral issues between the two states, including his case.
Relationship to the Cuban Five case
Many groups, including the U.S.-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, have urged the US Administration to negotiate with Cuba for Gross's release in exchange for the release of three remaining Cubans of the original Cuban Five still serving long sentences in the U.S. as a result of their convictions in Miami for infiltrating anti-Castro groups planning terrorist actions against the Cuban Government and spying on the activities at two U.S. military bases. The Center argues that refusing to permit the humanitarian release of the three remaining members of the Cuban Five in return for the humanitarian release of Alan Gross by Cuba, likely guarantees that Gross will serve about ten more years in prison in Cuba, stands as a major stumbling block to any constructive steps towards normalization of relations with Cuba, and undermines the long-standing U.S. interest in moving Cuba towards political and economic liberalization. The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has equally criticized the Cuban conviction of Gross and the U.S. Government's treatment and convictions of the Cuban Five. The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law has written to President Obama pointing out that the U.S. Government's conviction of Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, one of the Cuban Five, for conspiracy to commit murder in the February 1996 Cuban shoot down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes and his life sentence is a stain on the U.S. justice system as he in fact had nothing to do with the shoot down and had less knowledge about Cuba's plans than the US Government possessed. The U.S. Government has a long history of reducing sentences or pardoning those convicted of far more serious activities contrary to the national security than the activities for which the Cuban Five were convicted. The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law has argued that there are several ways in which a prisoner exchange could be accomplished in a manner fully consistent with U.S. law.
Reportedly, Gross' health has deteriorated during his incarceration. According to his wife and attorney, he has lost over 100 pounds (48 kg), has degenerative arthritis and is having difficulty walking. In May 2012, a mass developed on his right shoulder, which was diagnosed by Cuban doctors as a hematoma (collection of blood). But a U.S. radiologist consulted by Gross' family stated that the mass was improperly diagnosed, and that Gross could be suffering from cancer, which prompted Gross's new U.S. attorney Jared Genser, a Washington-based international human rights attorney to file a petition to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. At the same time, "extremely concerned about Alan Gross' health," the U.S. State Department called for Gross's immediate release.
On the other hand, the president of the Hebrew Community of Cuba, who has visited Gross in jail several times, claimed that Gross "looked very agile" and was not particularly worried about the mass on his shoulder. In November 2012, the Miami Herald reported that New York Rabbi Elie Abadie, who is also a physician, told The Associated Press that “Alan Gross does not have any cancerous growth at this time, at least based on the studies I was shown and based on the examination, and I think he understands that also,” after personally examining Gross and receiving a briefing from a team of Cuban physicians who attended Gross. The Cuban Foreign Affairs Ministry, in a statement detailing a meeting between diplomats of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, a doctor and nurse from the U.S. mission, and members of the Cuban medical team that presented the results of the biopsy performed on the lesion behind Gross's right shoulder, confirmed that the hematoma was not carcinogenic. The Cuban Government also maintains that Gross's health is normal for a man his age and that he is being properly treated, after having stated a few months earlier that Gross, who is held at a military hospital, "could be held at any prison facility" in what is seen as a thinly veiled warning.
In November 2012, Gross and his wife, Judith, sued Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI) and USAID for failing to adequately prepare, train and supervise him given the dangerous nature of the program's activities. Reportedly, they are seeking $60 million compensatory damages. They filed another lawsuit, reportedly seeking $10 million from Gross' insurer Federal Insurance Company for benefits they say the company has denied.
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