Cuba releases Jewish-American prisoner as Washington-Havana reset ties

Cuba arrested Gross in 2009, and later convicted the USAID subcontractor to 15 years in prison for importing banned technology, trying to establish clandestine internet service for Cuban Jews.

December 17, 2014 16:16
3 minute read.
Alan Gross

Alan Gross. (photo credit: REUTERS)

American Jew Alan Gross, held captive in Cuba for the past five years on charges of espionage, returned home on Wednesday as part of a prisoner exchange that will pave the way for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington.

Gross, 65, who was arrested in 2009 while distributing satellite phones and other banned communications technologies to members of Cuba’s small Jewish community as a contractor for USAID, was accused of working as an American intelligence agent.

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In a letter to President Barack Obama last year, Gross despaired of returning home, stating that he feared that the United States government had abandoned him.

“Officials in your administration have expressed sympathy and called for my unconditional release, and I very much appreciate that. But it has not brought me home. Only with your personal involvement can my release be secured,” he wrote the President.

Earlier this month, the wife of the imprisoned Maryland resident said that she was “afraid that we are at the end” and that he was ill health and has lost more than 100 pounds since his incarceration. “Alan is resolved that he will not endure another year imprisoned in Cuba, and I am afraid that we are at the end.”

In August, Gross said he could no longer take life in prison and reportedly said goodbye to his family. In November a federal appeals court dismissed a lawsuit filed by Gross charging that Gross should have been better trained and informed of the risks before going to Cuba to set up Internet access for the Jewish community there.

Members of the Jewish community have been vocal in their support of Gross, with five hundred Rabbis sending Cuban President Raul Castro a letter calling his release in 2012. The Anti-Defamation League and other organizations have likewise called on Cuba to send Gross home.

“While I have been prepared to take additional steps for some time, a major obstacle stood in our way –- the wrongful imprisonment, in Cuba, of a US citizen and USAID sub-contractor Alan Gross for five years.  Over many months, my administration has held discussions with the Cuban government about Alan’s case, and other aspects of our relationship,” President Obama said in a speech outlining his new Cuba policy.

“Today, Alan returned home –- reunited with his family at long last.  Alan was released by the Cuban government on humanitarian grounds” while another American, an intelligence agent, imprisoned for nearly two decades, was also freed in exchange for three Cubans.

“Alan’s release during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is appropriate as Hanukkah celebrates hope at a time of seeming hopelessness,” said Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY) in a statement.

“We are grateful to celebrate this ‘Hanukkah Miracle’ with Alan’s wife Judy, his daughters and the entire Washington Jewish community,” said Steven A. Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

“And we are especially grateful to our partner agency, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and its CEO Ron Halber, for tirelessly advocating on Alan’s behalf every day for 5 years.  We hope and pray that Alan’s health improves and look forward to personally welcoming him home.”

“We thank the US government for its work to secure his release and all those who advocated on Alan’s behalf through letter campaigns, donating to his legal defense fund established by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington, participating in regular vigils on his behalf and writing to Alan in prison to let him know that he was never forgotten,” the Jewish Council for Public Affairs said in a statement.

The Jewish Federations of North America, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the National Jewish Democratic Council, the Orthodox Union and other organizations that also lobbied on Gross’ behalf thanked Obama for his efforts in freeing Gross.

“We pray for his safe and quick return and a full recovery of his health, which deteriorated during his incarceration including over 100 pounds of weight loss. For this and many other reasons, most especially that his imprisonment was unjustified on all grounds, we welcome his release,” said Conference of Presidents CEO Malcolm Hoenlein.

“The Presidents Conference has long been active in the effort to seek Mr. Gross’s release and petitioned US and foreign governments, as well as Cuban officials, and met high ranking leaders of the Castro government. In this, we worked closely with the Gross family and their attorneys, as well as the Washington JCRC, Jewish Federations of North America, and other groups. His family and friends never lagged in their efforts.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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