Three hundred American rabbis have called on President Barack Obama to secure the immediate release of former State Department contractor Alan Gross as family members and advocates expressed growing concern for his physical and emotional health.
Gross's wife and one of his daughters visited him recently in a Cuban prison. Judy Gross says her husband said goodbye to them.
"I've never seen Alan in such bad shape during all the years that the Cuban government has kept him," she said in a statement. "Our daughter, Nina, was unprepared to see how gaunt and physically frail her father has become. And his decision to say goodbye to us was wrenching."
The 65-year-old Potomac man, who grew up in Baltimore and attended the University of Maryland, was detained in December 2009 after taking communications equipment to the communist nation. He was convicted by a Cuban court of crimes against the state and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Gross was traveling to the island as a subcontractor to the U.S. Agency for International Development, for whom he says he was trying to help Cuba's small Jewish community gain better access to the Internet and set up their own intranet. The program has since been canceled.
Cuba watchers were surprised by the length of his sentence, and that he wasn't released and sent home after sentencing, as they say has happened in similar cases.
Authorities denied Gross' requests to leave the island to visit his daughter as she underwent treatment for breast cancer and to say goodbye to his ailing mother. His mother died in June.
The rabbis urged Obama to intervene in a letter on Friday.
"Alan went to Cuba on behalf of our government," they wrote. "His immediate release from prison in Cuba and return to the U.S. must be a priority for our nation. Indeed, we believe this is a moral imperative. …
"We ask, with all respect, that you take whatever steps are necessary to ensure a prompt end to Alan's, and his family's, continuing nightmare."
The White House directed a request for comment to the National Security Council. National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell said, "Securing Alan Gross' immediate release remains a top priority of the United States, and his continued incarceration represents a significant impediment to a more constructive bilateral relationship between the United States and Cuba.
"We use every appropriate diplomatic channel to press for Mr. Gross' release, both publicly and privately," Ventrell said. "We have urged governments around the world and prominent figures traveling to Cuba, including religious leaders, to press for Mr. Gross' immediate release. This includes President Obama asking Uruguayan President [Jose] Mujica to use any opportunity he might have to raise Alan Gross' case directly with [Cuban] President [Raul] Castro."
Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Chris Van Hollen have urged Cuban authorities to free Gross; former President Jimmy Carter and Pope Benedict XVI have made personal appeals during visits to the island.
Gross, who started and stopped a hunger strike in the spring, told his wife and daughter he could not take life in prison much longer. He is refusing to see visitors from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
According to his attorney, Gross has said "his life in prison is not a life worth living."
"He's confined to a small cell for 24 hours a day," attorney Scott Gilbert said. "He's lost most of the vision in his right eye. His hips are failing and he can barely walk. He has stopped all attempts to exercise. Alan's emotional deterioration has been severe, and his mother's lingering and painful death has only accelerated this."
Judy Gross described her visit as "traumatic."
"I am imploring both the U.S. and Cuban governments to do the humane thing and agree to let Alan come home," she said. "Time is running out."