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2,900 prisoners in Cuba are given amnesty

They do not include American Alan Gross, whose case has further frozen U.S.-Cuban ties.

HAVANA - President Raul Castro granted amnesty Friday to 2,900 prisoners, but an American government subcontractor jailed in Cuba for crimes against the state is not among them, a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

"Alan Gross is not on the list," said the official, Josefina Vidal, dashing the hopes of Gross's supporters in the United States, who have been pleading with Cuban authorities to release the 62-year-old Maryland native on humanitarian grounds.

In a speech to lawmakers, Castro said his country would pardon the 2,900 prisoners, including some convicted of political crimes. Castro cited a forthcoming visit by Pope Benedict XVI among the reasons for the amnesty, saying the humanitarian act showed Cuba's strength.

He said that 86 foreign prisoners from 25 countries would be freed and that diplomats would be notified shortly.

Vidal heads the Foreign Ministry's North American affairs division.

Castro said the list is filled with inmates who, like Gross, are over 60 or ailing. Others included in the amnesty are many female inmates and young people without long criminal records.

Those convicted of serious crimes like murder, espionage or drug trafficking are not be part of the amnesty.

Gross was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for crimes against the state. The case has frozen already icy relations between Washington and Havana.

Gross's family concedes he was on a USAID-funded democracy-building program, but insists his goal was simply to help Cuba's tiny Jewish community gain better access to the Internet. Family members say he spoke almost no Spanish and visited Havana repeatedly, hardly the stuff of a master spy.

Cuban officials say the USAID programs seek to overthrow their government.

Gross's supporters have appealed to Castro for a humanitarian release. They say that Gross - who was obese when he was arrested - has lost more than 100 pounds in prison and is now gaunt and increasingly depressed. Meanwhile, his daughter and elderly mother have both been diagnosed with cancer.

Cuba this year freed the last of 75 political prisoners arrested in a notorious 2003 sweep. While others remain jailed for politically motivated crimes, most of those were involved in acts of violence such as hijacking.