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Cuba to release 2,900 prisoners - but not American Alan Gross

Alan and Judy Gross
Alan and Judy Gross AP/Gross Family

Cuba on Friday announced plans to release more than 2,900 prisoners from jails but imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross is not among them.

An official note posted on the government website says the releases correspond to "established policy" and at the "numerous requests of relatives and diverse religious institutions, in a humanitarian and sovereign gesture."

The selection of prisoners to be released says the note is based on the "characteristics of the crimes committed, the good conduct maintained in prison, age and illnesses suffered, as well as the amount of time already served".

The releases will benefit prisoners over 60 years of age, the sickly, women, and also young prisoners with no prior criminal record. They come ahead of a planned visit from Pope Benedict XVI next spring.

Not included in the release, the government statement said, are those sanctioned for espionage, terrorism, murder, assassination, drug trafficking, violent sexual abuse of minors, armed robbery of homes with people inside, rape and corruption of minors.

However, the note concludes by saying that despite these exceptions, some prisoners sentenced for crimes against state security will be released, adding that these have already served most of their sentence and have demonstrated good behavior. The releases will take place in the coming days.

Since Gross has only served two years of his 15 years sentence for crimes against the state, he does not appear to meet the conditions for early release as described by the Cuban government.

Gross was arrested in December 2009 and sentenced last March to 15 years in prison for bringing illegal communications equipment into Cuba as part of a program subcontracted to his employer by USAID. The Cubans say this program and others like it are intended to overthrow throw their government.

President Obama and the State Department have said that Gross' imprisonment is a major obstacle to any further improvement in bilateral relations.

In July of 2010, following discussions between Cuban President Raul Castro and Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the communist government released more than 52 political prisoners and allowed them to leave the country in what was the island's largest mass liberation of prisoners of conscience in decades, but one now dwarfed by the wider prisoner release announced Friday.

Eighty-five foreign prisoners from 25 countries are also being released, Castro said, but those releases are contingent on their home countries agreeing to take them back. The group includes 13 women.