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U.S. Contractor Held in Cuba Begins a Hunger Strike

Alan Gross, a former contractor for the United States Agency for International Development who has been imprisoned in Cuba for four years, plans to announce today that he has begun a hunger strike to help him win his freedom, a spokesman for Mr. Gross said.

Mr. Gross, who was arrested by Cuban authorities in 2009 and accused of being an American spy, has denied working for any intelligence agency. He is calling on Cuba to release him and is demanding that President Obama get involved in his case.

"I am fasting to object to mistruths, deceptions, and inaction by both governments, not only regarding their shared responsibility for my arbitrary detention, but also because of the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal," Mr. Gross said in a statement released on Tuesday morning.

Scott Gilbert, Mr. Gross's attorney, also criticized U.S.A.I.D. for recent reports that revealed that the agency tried to secretly create a Twitter-like communication system called ZunZuneo in Cuba even as Mr. Gross was incarcerated. Mr. Gilbert said the agency should have known that the effort could threaten Mr. Gross's safety.

"Once Alan was arrested, it is shocking that U.S.A.I.D. would imperil his safety even further by running a covert operation in Cuba," Mr. Gilbert said in the statement. "U.S.A.I.D. has made one absurdly bad decision after another. Running this program is contrary to everything we have been told by high-level representatives of the Obama administration about U.S.A.I.D.'s activities in Cuba."

White House officials have said the ZunZuneo project, which was revealed last week by The Associated Press, was not a covert operation and was designed to help encourage democracy. Rajiv Shah, the director of U.S.A.I.D., is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill on Tuesday and is expected to be questioned by lawmakers about the program.

Mr. Gross, 64, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2011 after working for the United States agency to secretly provide Internet access to the island's Jewish community, circumventing Cuban government censors in the process. He was accused of distributing satellite and computer equipment without the proper permits.

White House officials have long called on the Cuban government to release Mr. Gross. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, urged Cuba to release Mr. Gross in December, on the fourth anniversary of his arrest.

"Mr. Gross is a 64-year-old husband, father, and dedicated professional with a long history of providing aid to underserved communities in more than 50 countries," Mr. Carney said at the time, adding that "Mr. Gross's detention remains an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba."

But Mr. Gross and his wife expressed frustration with Mr. Obama and the United States government, saying that they have not done enough to try to free him. In the statement, they said Mr. Gross was confined to a small cell for 23 hours a day and was in failing health.

"I've been begging our government for more than four years to bring Alan home," Judy Gross, his wife, said in the statement. "I'm worried sick about Alan's health, and I don't think he can survive much more of this."

Mr. Carney said in December that the president was "personally engaged" in the effort to win Mr. Gross's release. He said that Mr. Obama had been in touch with other world leaders to urge them to use their influence with Cuban authorities.

"The State Department has kept Mr. Gross's case at the forefront of discussions with the Cuban government and made clear the importance the United States places on his welfare," he said. "They have also engaged a wide range of foreign counterparts and urged them to advocate for Mr. Gross's release."

[Source: By Michael D. Shear, The New York Times, 08Apr14]

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