"Used as a pawn"
Jailed US contractor says intended no harm to Cuba
Havana: Imprisoned US contractor Alan Gross told Cuba's Supreme Court on Friday he had no intention of hurting the island's government or people when he worked on Internet technology there, travelling as a tourist.
Gross, 62, who was arrested in Havana in late 2009, was allowed to speak briefly to Cuba's highest court during a hearing on his appeal against his 15-year sentence for crimes against the state handed down in March by a lower court.
An official Cuban statement said the Supreme Court would announce its "definitive sentence in the next few days”.
Gross was detained in Cuba while working on a secretive pro-democracy program funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) that sought to build an Internet platform on the island whose communist authorities tightly control access to the Internet.
The jailing of the American aid contractor, whom Cuba's government has accused of being part of US government efforts to subvert communist rule on the Caribbean island, has soured relations and stalled US President Barack Obama's moves to forge better ties.
Gross denies his work was a threat to the Cuban government, saying he was trying only to improve Internet connectivity for the country's small Jewish community.
"Alan reiterated that he never had any intention of hurting the Cuban government or its people, and that he has always believed -- and still does so today -- in the sovereignty of the Cuban nation and its people," his US lawyer, Peter Kahn, said in a statement in Washington after Friday's hearing.
His Cuban lawyer, Nuris Pinero, had argued before the Supreme Court in Havana that Gross's conviction and sentence to 15 years in a Cuban prison was not warranted "by either the law or the facts of his case”, Kahn said.
Local and international experts believe there is only a slim chance the Supreme Court will throw out the lower court's conviction of Gross and set him free. They said it was far more likely to uphold the verdict and possibly reduce the sentence.
An official Cuban statement said Gross thanked the judges for being able to explain his arguments to the court.
Foreign journalists were excluded from Friday's Supreme Court appeal hearing, which lasted nearly 1-1/2 hours and was held in a building within view of Revolution Palace where Cuban President Raul Castro's offices are located.
Three US diplomats from the US Interests Section in Havana attended the hearing.
In Washington, Cuban-born Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Foreign Relations Committee, said no one should expect Cuba's Supreme Court to judiciously consider Gross's appeal.
"It will not because the ultimate arbiters of power who will decide his fate are the Castro brothers. In Cuba there exists no independent judiciary," Ros-Lehtinen said.
"Sadly, Mr Gross is being used as a pawn by the Castro dictatorship. The outcome in this case has been carefully calibrated by the ruling clique to teach a stern lesson to others who dare circumvent the Castro censors," she said.
Kahn said he and Gross's family were hopeful the eventual ruling from the Supreme Court would "allow Alan promptly to be reunited with his family after having served nearly 20 months in a Cuban prison".
The US government and Gross's lawyers and family have called for his immediate release.
"We continue to call on the Cuban authorities to consider Alan's difficult family situation and release him immediately on humanitarian grounds," Kahn said in his statement.
Gross's lawyers and his family have said his daughter and his mother-in-law have been battling cancer. His wife Judy, who did not attend Friday's hearing, has said Gross has health problems and has lost 100 pounds (45 kg) in jail.
US officials have made clear any further initiatives to improve bilateral ties would require his immediate release.
Obama had initially eased US travel restrictions to Cuba and allowed a free flow of remittances to the island as part of measures to increase contacts. But more significant moves to relax long-running US economic sanctions are unlikely without movement in the Gross case.
Sources with knowledge of Gross's secretive trial in Havana in March said he admitted entering as a tourist several times to distribute communications equipment to Jewish groups. But his defence argues he did not understand he was working for a US program aimed at promoting political change in Cuba.