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Jailed U.S. contractor in Cuba warns of terminal hunger strike

Demonstrators gather during a rally for U.S. detainee Alan Gross in Lafayette Square in Washington December 3, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
Demonstrators gather during a rally for U.S. detainee Alan Gross in Lafayette Square in Washington December 3, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - The lawyer for jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross told the press in Havana on Wednesday that his client planned to return from Cuba to his family within the year, dead or alive, and called on the Obama administration to do more to obtain his release.

Attorney Scott Gilbert, in Cuba to discuss the case with his client and local authorities, said Gross, 64, was suffering from various ailments and angry at the U.S. government for not obtaining his release.

"Alan is not doing well. Five years of confinement is taking a toll on him. He has lost some vision in his right eye. He is missing a tooth. He limps because of his hips. He has lost nearly 110 pounds," Gilbert said.

Gross is serving a 15-year term for illegally attempting to establish Internet service on the island. He ended a 9-day hunger strike earlier this month at the urging of his 91-year-old mother.

"Alan told me unequivocally that his 65th birthday on May 2 will be his last birthday that he celebrates in Havana, one way or the other," Gilbert said.

"Alan is a very determined individual ... He means that one year from now if this issue ... has not been resolved he will come home dead," Gilbert emphasized, referring to Gross's pledge to renew his hunger strike, which he said had also taken a toll on Gross's health.

Gross was arrested in 2009 while trying to establish an online network for Jews in Havana as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

In 2011 a Cuban court sentenced him to 15 years in prison for illegally providing Internet equipment and service under a U.S. program promoting political change that the Cuban government considers subversive.

The United States has repeatedly stated Gross was merely helping the Jewish community communicate internally and outside Cuba.

Gilbert, who met for two hours on Wednesday with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, said the official had reiterated Cuba's "strong interest in sitting down with officials of the United States at the highest levels to resolve this issue with no preconditions."

Cuba has blamed the United States for Gross's incarceration and repeatedly offered to enter into talks that would also take up the cases of three Cuban agents serving long prison terms in the United States for spying on Cuban exile groups in Florida.

The United States has rejected any trade of the Cuban agents for Gross, and no formal talks have taken place.

"To date the United States has not engaged with Cuba at all in respect to Alan Gross," Gilbert said. "The United States has an obligation to do everything it can to bring him home."

Gross launched his hunger strike on April 3 after The Associated Press reported that USAID established a secretive "Cuban Twitter" called ZunZuneo following his arrest.

Gilbert said the report had a "profound effect" on his client as "he believed it could well have endangered his life and well being" because it showed the United States continued to carry out programs similar to the one that resulted in his arrest.

ZunZuneo was funded by USAID, a foreign aid agency that has also received funds from Congress to promote democracy in Cuba.

The United States has tried to use social media to break through Cuba's state monopoly on newspapers, radio and television.

(Edited by David Adams and Prudence Crowther)

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