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Gross, 64, was arrested by Cuban authorities on December 3, 2009, days before the conclusion of his fourth government-backed mission to the island. A veteran contractor of the United States Agency for International Development, Gross focused his work on providing members of the Cuban Jewish community with Internet connections, which would enable them to bypass the strict limitations imposed by the government on access to the web. In February 2011, he was charged with “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state,” and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The program Alan Gross worked on was funded by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act that called for active American involvement in bringing about political change in Cuba.
In prison, Gross has suffered significant weight loss and other illnesses. Back at home, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, his daughter and mother have been struggling with cancer.
The Jewish community of Washington has been leading the charge for the release of Gross and the local Jewish Community Relations Council has organized vigils outside the Cuban interest office. “We are deliberately having today’s event outside the White House,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the JCRC of Greater Washington. “It marks a shift in tone. We are calling on the president to make this a national priority.”
On the national level, however, Jewish organizations were slow to follow. While the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and most national groups expressed support for the release of Gross, the issue has rarely been raised in meetings with the administration.
In the past year, Alan and Judy Gross turned to the courts for support, filing lawsuits against the USAID and against Development Alternatives Inc., the contracting company that hired Gross to carry out the job in Cuba. In the lawsuits the couple claimed that both employers failed to properly present the dangers Gross faced in Cuba. The suit argued that their negligence had led to his arrest and to the loss of the family’s main source of income.
On May 16, DAI settled the case outside the court, providing the Gross family with an “undisclosed monetary amount” according to the company’s press release. According to the settlement, neither side admits any fault for the arrest and imprisonment of Gross.
The suit against the USAID was dismissed by the U.S.District Court for the District of Columbia, based on the principle that the federal government is not liable for events that happened outside the U.S. “The Court is in no way condoning what happened to Gross or implying he is to blame,” the May 28 ruling stated, noting that “sympathy with his plight, however, is not a basis on which to circumvent” the precedents of government immunity to these claims. The Gross’s lawyers appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia and are awaiting a hearing.
Judy Gross is now focusing, however, on public advocacy aimed at her own government. “Was Alan naïve?” she asked, “in hindsight — yes.” But, she added, “it is up to our government to secure his release.”