US urges Carter to ask Cuba to release American

Alan Gross was arrested in 2009 for delivering laptops to Jewish community.

Havana: US diplomats in Havana expressed hope that former president Jimmy Carter will press the Cuban government to release a jailed American contractor during a private visit to the island next week.

Carter will arrive in Havana on Monday for a private three-day visit at the invitation of the Cuban government to discuss ways to improve US-Cuban relations, the non-profit Carter Centre said on Friday.

The former president`s visit comes amid tensions over the imprisonment of a State Department contractor Alan Gross, who was arrested in December 2009 for delivering laptops and communications devices to Cuba`s small Jewish community.

A Cuban court sentenced Gross, 61, to 15 years in prison earlier this month for "acts against the independence or territorial integrity" of Cuba.

The Carter Centre announcement made no mention of the Gross case, but a spokeswoman for the US diplomatic mission in Havana made clear on Friday the United States would welcome his help.

"We`re hoping that he will talk with the Cuban government to ask for a humanitarian release and if the Cuban government could please consider it, hopefully immediately," Molly Koscina, spokeswoman for the US diplomatic mission in Havana, said.

Carter, 86, who brokered a historic peace accord between Israel and Egypt, is scheduled to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro and other Cuban officials. His wife Rosalyn is travelling with him.

The Carter Centre said he wanted to learn about Cuba`s new economic policies, which call for major layoffs from the public sector and new rules allowing small-scale private enterprise, and an upcoming Party Congress.

"The trip is a follow-up to their May 2002 visit to Cuba. It is being undertaken as a private, nongovernmental mission under the auspices of the not-for-profit Carter Centre," the centre said.

When Carter, who was president from 1977-1981, visited Cuba in 2002 he met with then-president Fidel Castro and called for an end to the US embargo on the island.

He also called on the regime to allow UN human rights officials to visit the island, and publicly praised the Varela Project, a pro-democracy petition calling for a referendum on increased freedom of expression and amnesty for political prisoners.

Carter met during that visit with leading Cuban dissidents Oswaldo Paya and Elizardo Sanchez.

That year, Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize for his decades of work ending conflicts and advancing human rights.

Ties between Washington and Havana, which have had no formal relations for more than 50 years, have thawed slightly since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

But Washington was incensed when Cuba arrested Gross.

Washington on Friday said that human rights conditions under Cuba`s communist regime remain "poor" despite Havana`s recent release of the last members of a group of 75 dissidents detained eight years ago.

Cuba`s opposition movement stresses that the prisons are not empty of dissidents, with one activist noting on Wednesday that there are some 60 people currently held on political charges.

Bureau Report