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American contractor Alan Gross, center, poses with his wife, Judy, and his attorney, Scott Gilbert, during a visit in a Cuban prison last year. / Family Photo

MIAMI - An American contractor who has been held in a Cuban prison for over four years started a hunger strike to protest what he described as the inaction of both the U.S. and Cuban governments to secure his release.

Alan Gross, who was arrested by Cuban authorities in 2009 for importing and distributing communications equipment for the Jewish community there, had his last meal on Wednesday. His attorney said he decided to take the extreme measure after the Associated Press on Thursday reported on a secret program run by the U.S. government to facilitate cellphone communication between Cubans on the island.

Gross was arrested while acting on a contract from the U.S. Agency for International Development to improve communication on the island, where Internet use is heavily restricted by the Cuban government. The program uncovered by the AP, dubbed the "Cuban Twitter" by officials who ran it from 2009 to 2012, was also run by USAID and initiated after Gross was imprisoned.

Gross, who estimates he has lost more than 110 pounds since he was imprisoned, said in a statement that he was frustrated by the continued lack of effort by the U.S. government to orchestrate his release.

"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," Gross said in a statement released by his attorney. "Once again, I am calling on President Obama to get personally involved in ending this stand-off so that I can return home to my wife and daughters."

Gross' attorney, Scott Gilbert, spoke with him by phone on Tuesday and said the Maryland man has lost 10 more pounds since starting the hunger strike. Gilbert said Gross is only drinking water and does not know whether the Cuban prison officials will force-feed him, a common practice when prisoners go on hunger strikes.

Gilbert said Gross has become increasingly frustrated that the U.S. government has not acted more aggressively to negotiate his release. He said USAID's decision to run the Cuban Twitter program imperiled Gross' safety and served as the "final straw" to start the hunger strike.

"He's extremely frustrated, more so at this point at the United States than at Cuba," said Gilbert, who speaks with Gross twice a week and has visited him in prison several times. "Hunger strikes don't end up anywhere pleasant, either through the effects of not eating or forced feedings."

"When I asked him how long he planned to continue the hunger strike, he said, 'As long as it takes,'" Gilbert said.

Gross's case has become central to the political back-and-forth between the governments of Cuba and the U.S.

His relatives and friends have organized protests in Washington, D.C., to urge his release, and he has been visited by several members of Congress. At the same time, Cuban officials have accused the U.S. of wrongfully detaining five of their citizens, dubbed the Cuban Five. The men were convicted in federal court on espionage charges, and have become national heroes in Cuba, where their images are painted on billboards and walls throughout the island.

Cuban officials have said they would be willing to discuss Gross' release if the U.S. government considered releasing the Cuban Five. Two of the men have been released from prison and returned to Cuba.

Gilbert said that for the past year, Cuban officials have offered to negotiate Gross' case "without any preconditions."

On Thursday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said President Obama remains committed to securing Gross' release.

"His detention remains an impediment to more constructive relations between the U.S. and Cuba," Carney said.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: American prisoner in Cuba starts hunger strike

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