By Michael Isikoff
American Alan Gross, a 63-year-old U.S. government subcontractor from Montgomery County, Md., has been in prison in Cuba since late 2009.
A United Nations panel has called on Cuba to immediately release jailed American contractor Alan Gross after finding that his detention was "arbitrary" and violated international human-rights standards, according to a report obtained by NBC News.
The 16- page decision by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which has not yet been publicly released, is a victory for the legal team working to free Gross, a State Department contractor who was arrested three years ago for allegedly smuggling sophisticated satellite equipment to Cuba's tiny Jewish community.
The Cuban Foreign Ministry dismissed the findings as a result of "pressures exerted by the United States" and vigorously defended its detention of the 63-year-old American. Gross "was sentenced for committing acts against Cuba's national security and public order, not for promoting freedom," the ministry said in a statement also obtained by NBC News. A Cuban official said that the working group reached its findings without visiting Cuba or interviewing Gross.
Gross' imprisonment and the 15-year prison sentence imposed on him last year by a Cuban court has become a new flashpoint in U.S.-Cuba relations. Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a unanimous resolution calling for Gross' immediate release. The dispute over his detention has been further heightened by assertions by Gross' family that he has lost over 100 pounds in prison and that his health is failing.
The working group, an arm of the Geneva-based U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, conducted its investigation in response to a petition submitted by Gross' lawyers. Its findings can now be submitted to the High Commissioner or directly to the U.N. General Assembly and, if adopted, put further international pressure on Cuba over its treatment of the jailed American. A spokesman for the High Commissioner did not respond to a request for comment.
In Cuba, American contractor Alan Gross has been imprisoned for three years for smuggling satellite equipment to the country's Jewish community. NBC's Michael Isikoff reports.
According to lawsuit he recently filed against the U.S. Government and the contractor that employed him, Gross has charged he was a "pawn" in a larger U.S. government program to change Cuba's government and was never advised about the dangers he faced. (The State Department has declined comment; the contractor, Development Alternatives Inc., has said only that Gross' release is its "highest priority." ) Gross made five trips to Cuba between March 30, 2009 and November 2009, delivering telecommunications equipment that he said was designed to "increase Internet access in Cuba," according to the lawsuit.
The U.N. panel's report found that Gross' detention near the end of his fifth trip was "arbitrary" and that he was tried and convicted after a two-day trial by a Cuban court that did not operate in an "independent and impartial" manner. It further found that he was charged under a Cuban law – prohibiting "acts against the independence and/or territorial integrity of the state" – that was too vague by international standards. The panel also concluded that Gross should have been released on bail during the 14 months between his arrest and his conviction by the Cuban court.
"On those grounds, the Working Group requests the Government of the Republic of Cuba order the immediate release of Mr. Alan Phillip Gross," the report states.
Chris Fletcher, a lawyer for Gross, said in an email: "If what is being reported is accurately quoted from the U.N. Working Group opinion, then it reaffirms what we said previously: the government of Cuba is violating its international legal obligations. It should therefore immediately release Alan Gross from prison and allow him to return to the United States to be reunited with his family. Moreover, regardless of the outcome of the case, Alan's health is declining and it has long been clear he should be immediately released on humanitarian grounds."
In its response to the U.N. report, the Cuban Foreign Ministry condemned the United Nations working group for its "hasty" analysis.
"Mr. Gross was detained, prosecuted and sentenced for illegally and covertly introducing in Cuba communication equipment using non-commercial technology, which is only meant to be used for military purposes and for creating clandestine networks." He did so to implement a U.S. government program "with the aim of subverting Cuba's constitutional order," to overthrow the Cuban government, the foreign ministry statement said.
A Cuban official also noted that the same U.N. working group has also criticized the U.S. government for the 1998 arrest and later conviction of five Cuban agents on conspiracy to commit espionage charges, four of whom are still being held in U.S. prisons. A senior Cuban official, Ricardo Alarcon, recently told NBC News that the Cubans would consider releasing Gross, but want the U.S. government to take similar "humanitarian" steps by releasing the imprisoned Cubans.
Michael Isikoff is NBC News' national investigative correspondent.
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