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US contractor jailed in Cuba pleads for release

A US contractor serving 15 years in jail in Cuba for espionage appealed Friday to return to the United States to visit his ailing mother in a telephone call with CNN television.

Alan Gross, phoning from the Cuban prison hospital where he is being detained, said despite some positive developments and international efforts he was making no headway on winning his release.

"I have a 90-year-old mother who has inoperable lung cancer. She's not getting any younger or healthier," Gross told CNN after being granted permission to give an unprecedented interview to US media.

"My lawyer and I have written on more than one occasion to the government of Cuba, requesting permission for me to visit her and return to Cuba. I'm saying I would return to Cuba if they let me visit my mother before she dies."

Gross, who turned 63 this week, was found guilty in March 2011 of "acts against the independence or territorial integrity" of Cuba and sentenced to 15 years in prison for delivering laptops and communications equipment to Cuba's small Jewish community under a State Department contract.

He has always denied the charges against him, and Washington has continued to press Havana for his release.

At the end of 2011 hopes were high that Gross could be pardoned along with 3,000 other prisoners in Cuba by President Raul Castro. But they were ultimately dashed.

Gross said that he has lost about 100 pounds in weight since his December 2009 arrest, but otherwise "I'm not really in bad shape."

He said there had been some positive developments, such as being allowed to make one phone call a week to his family or someone else, and being allowed outdoors at night.

"The fact that they allowed this call to continue I think is a very positive sign," Gross said.

He said he was being held in a secured hospital building which usually has three people to a room. "We're not allowed to see any other people, except the cell mates," Gross said. "There are bars, of course."

If he had a chance, Gross said he would tell Raul Castro "that I think he's trying to do some very courageous things" by publicly admitting to economic shortcomings "that cannot be blamed on the United States. I think it took a lot of courage to say that."

The US contractor also emphasized that he has "absolutely nothing against the people of Cuba.

"The people have been wonderful. I would do anything in my power to help the people of Cuba ... Perhaps if I was miraculously released I could work in the United States on trying to improve the business scenario here, but I have nothing against the people of Cuba. I'm not a big fan of the government right now."

Gross also said that whenever he is transferred to a larger jail to meet US consulate officials he is moved "in a caravan of four vehicles with about 15 guys. They make a big show out of transfer. They have their guys with flak vests and helmets and automatic weapons. A lot of it is a show, and I'm not sure who the show is for. Certainly not for me."

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