HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba's Supreme Court has upheld the 15-year prison sentence of jailed American aid contractor Alan Gross for trying to set up Internet networks in Cuba, in a damaging decision for U.S.-Cuba relations.

The Cuban government said on Friday the court upheld the finding in his March trial that he illegally took equipment into Cuba to spread Internet access under a U.S. program "to subvert the Cuban constitutional order."

The case has brought U.S.-Cuba relations to a standstill after a brief warming under President Barack Obama, who eased U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba and allowed a free flow of remittances to the island before Gross, 62, was arrested in December 2009.

The Obama administration has said there would be no more improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations as long as Cuba imprisons Gross, who has been behind bars for 20 months, and called for him to be "immediately and unconditionally" released.

"We deplore the ruling of the Cuban Supreme Court," said U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner. "We will continue to use every available diplomatic channel to press for his release."

The court's decision followed a July 22 appeal to the Supreme Court that was Gross' last legal recourse in the case.

The outcome was not a major surprise, although some had expected the court to at least reduce his sentence.

The court rejected Gross' defense that he intended no harm toward Cuba and was only trying to provide more Internet access to the island's small Jewish community.

He was working for a secretive U.S. Agency for International Development program that Cuba views as part of longstanding U.S. efforts to destabilize the island's government. It considers the Internet one of the new battlegrounds in the two countries' half-century old ideological conflict.

The program has drawn criticism in Washington for ineffectiveness and for putting Gross, who had engaged in development projects around the world, in danger.

HUMANITARIAN REASONS

His wife, Judy Gross, has repeatedly pleaded that her husband be freed for humanitarian reasons because his elderly mother and their daughter are battling cancer and Gross is suffering health problems that have contributed to his losing 100 pounds (45 kg) in jail.

In a statement from Washington, where Gross' family lives, his attorney Peter Kahn said the court's decision was disappointing and had left the family "heartbroken." He urged a diplomatic solution and requested that Cuban President Raul Castro release Gross.

"Alan and his entire family have paid an enormous personal price in the long-standing political feud between Cuba and the United States," Kahn said.

"We call upon the two countries to resolve their dispute over Alan's activities diplomatically and request that President Raul Castro release Alan immediately on humanitarian grounds."

U.S. Jewish groups including the Anti-Defamation League and another representing Holocaust survivors appealed to Castro to free Gross, with the latter saying he was an "an active and committed member of the Jewish community in the United States" who did humanitarian work around the world.

"When Mr. Gross was arrested he believed he was advancing his humanitarian work in Cuba," Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, said in a statement sent to Reuters.

The Cuban government has given no hint that Gross would be leaving jail anytime soon.

Cuba has its own complaints about justice in the United States, which it says has unfairly imprisoned five Cuban agents since 1998 on spying-related convictions.

It said Gross had received "all the guarantees and rights" accorded under the Cuban constitution and been treated in a "respectful and humane" way that included allowing regular contacts with his family and U.S. officials.        



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