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The Case of Alan Gross: An Eye for Two Legs?

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The campaign to free Alan Gross is ramping up. Gross is the American arrested in 2009 for smuggling telecommunications equipment into Cuba. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years in prison for what the Cubans called "acts to undermine the integrity and independence" of their country.

The U.S. government insists Gross was a naive humanitarian caught trying to help Cuba's small Jewish communities communicate with each other and the world. They have demanded his immediate release.

So has the American Jewish community. Members of Jewish and interfaith groups now stage weekly vigils outside the Cuban Interests Section in Washington -- "We are not going to stop agitating, stop pushing for Alan's release, until he is on the next plane out," declares the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington -- and recently launched a national online petition to urge Pope Benedict XVI to intercede on Gross's behalf during his upcoming visit to Cuba.

The Cubans appear willing -- but only in exchange for the release of the Cuban Five, a group of their intelligence agents sentenced in 2001 to even longer terms in American prisons.

The U.S. insists there's no comparison between the two cases. Gross is an innocent; the Cubans were spies trying to steal U.S. military secrets, not to forget helping shoot down civilian aircraft, killing four people.

But Americans who truly want Alan Gross freed should carefully examine their government's rhetoric --versus the reality -- about both cases.

We already know -- thanks to leaked Cuban court documents and an investigation by the Associated Press -- that Gross was far from the innocent he has been portrayed.

Alan Gross was a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development, which promotes "regime change" in Cuba. He was working on a $500,000 contract to smuggle sophisticated telecommunications equipment -- including "a specialized mobile phone chip that experts say is often used by the Pentagon and the CIA to make satellite signals virtually impossible to track" -- into Cuba.

The Cuban Jewish community didn't ask for his help because they already had their own intranet and Internet access. And Gross himself knew what he was doing was illegal. "This is very risky business," he wrote in one memo.

If the U.S. government has fudged the facts on Alan Gross, its credibility on the Cuban Five is non-existent.

Military secrets? While some of the Cuban agents indeed sought military information, they were primarily looking for canary-in-the-coal-mine signs the U.S. was planning to invade their country. Given the examples of Haiti, Panama, Grenada, who could blame them? Mostly, the agents counted planes on runways at Florida military bases -- from public highways.

More to the point, their primary goal in Florida was to infiltrate and disrupt Miami anti-Castro groups who were hatching terrorist plots against Cuba in violation of the U.S. Neutrality Act.

Murder? The most serious allegation is that one of the Five helped engineer the shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft over the Straits of Florida in 1996 in which four pilots were killed. One can argue -- and I would -- the Cubans were wrong to shoot down those planes, but there is not a shred of evidence in the 20,000-plus pages of trial transcript to indicate Cuba's Florida agents had advance knowledge of the shootdown or any role in deciding to go ahead with the attack. I know --because I read the transcript as part of the research for a book I'm writing on the Five.

So why were they convicted? They weren't actually charged with spying or murder, but with "conspiracy to," a convenient, low-burden-of-proof catch-all.

And the trial itself took place in Miami, the most virulently anti-Cuban city in America, where anti-Castro terrorists are rarely charged and almost never convicted. Miami juries are notorious. In 1999, for example -- soon after the Cuban Five were arrested -- U.S. prosecutors successfully fought attempts to have another trial of a group of Cuban-Americans charged with plotting to assassinate Fidel Castro moved to Miami because they recognized "the Cuban population is large and they will have a harder time getting a conviction" in Miami.

Americans who want Alan Gross freed have so far shied away from linking his case to that of the Cuban Five -- perhaps because they swallowed the administration Kool Aid on the case. They shouldn't.

None of this is to suggest there aren't humanitarian grounds for Gross's release. There are. The 62-year-old -- whose mother and daughter are suffering from cancer -- is said to be in poor health and has lost more than 100 pounds during his captivity. But the Cubans have equally compelling humanitarian -- and even more compelling natural justice -- arguments for their release too.

It's time to make a deal.

Around the Web

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Did the "Cuban Five" receive fair jail sentences? | The Economist

Free the Cuban Five! | The Nation