Cuban court to hear jailed American’s appeal

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HAVANA (AP) ? A hearing before Cuba’s Supreme Court on Friday offers jailed American subcontractor Alan Gross a last chance to get his 15-year sentence for sneaking communications equipment onto the island dismissed.

The case of the 62-year-old Maryland native, who has been in jail since his arrest in December 2009, has undermined already faltering efforts at rapprochement between the Cold War enemies. Gross was working on a USAID program meant to foster democracy on the Communist-run island, and Cuba considers such programs subversive, noting that until recently U.S. government literature overtly described their aim as fostering regime change.

American officials say privately they hold little hope of Gross’s conviction being thrown out altogether following oral arguments on Friday, but they say the hearing could do something else: clear the way for the Cuban government to release him on humanitarian grounds.

Cuban officials have been quietly telling their American counterparts for months that they are sympathetic to Gross’s personal ordeal; he has lost 100 pounds while in jail, his 27-year-old daughter has been diagnosed with breast cancer, his elderly mother is also ailing, his wife is recovering from surgery and the family has been forced to sell their home.

But they have also indicated the legal process must play out before they even consider a presidential pardon or other form of humanitarian release. U.S. consular officials are expected to be present at Friday’s hearing, as is Gross’s Cuban attorney. Gross’s American lawyer, Peter Kahn, issued a statement Wednesday saying his client’s wife, Judy, will not be able to attend because she is still recovering from surgery for an undisclosed ailment.

It is not clear when the Cuban high court might rule following the hearing, though the tribunal usually issues decisions within a couple of weeks.

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Paul Haven can be reached at www.twitter.com/paulhaven