HAVANA (Reuters) - The U.S. contractor serving a 15-year prison term in Cuba for trying to start an illegal Internet service has gone on a hunger strike to protest his treatment by the Cuban and U.S. governments, his lawyer said on Tuesday.
Attorney Scott Gilbert also criticized the United States for further endangering his client Alan Gross by launching a secretive "Cuban Twitter" after his arrest in 2009.
Gross, 64, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was arrested while trying to establish an online network for Jews in Havana. In 2011, a Cuban court sentenced Gross to 15 years in prison.
When Gross learned recently that USAID launched a social media project in Cuba after his arrest, it was "the final straw" that prompted him to begin a hunger strike last Thursday, Gilbert said in a statement.
Gross told Gilbert he would continue his hunger strike "as long as it takes," the lawyer said.
Already fraught U.S. -Cuba relations suffered another setback last week with the revelation that USAID had established the social network. Havana saw it as an attempt to subvert the communist government.
"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 the statement.
Gross repeated his plea for U.S. President Barack Obama to become personally involved in efforts to get him released.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday the Obama administration is "deeply involved" in the Gross case.
The administration is "very, very focused on trying to get Alan Gross out of there. His treatment is inhumane. And he is wrongfully imprisoned," Kerry told a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
Gilbert said Gross has lost 10 pounds (4.5 kg) since beginning his hunger strike, and had already lost 110 pounds (50 kg) in prison before starting it. He is confined to a small, constantly lit cell with two other prisoners for 23 hours a day, the statement said.
Cuba has yet to react publicly to the hunger strike. In the past it has blamed the United States for his incarceration and has offered to enter talks that would also take up the cases of three Cuban agents serving long prison terms in the United States for spying on Cuban exile groups in Florida.
The United States has rejected any trade of the Cuban agents for Gross, and no formal talks have taken place.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Gross should be released immediately, which "has been made abundantly clear, I think, to the government of Cuba." He did not answer a question about whether it was time to engage in direct talks with the Cubans.
The Associated Press revealed last week USAID had funded a social network in Cuba called ZunZuneo from 2010 to 2012. Cuban authorities called the program an example of U.S. attempts to undermine Cuba's communist government. USAID, primarily a foreign aid agency, has received funds from Congress to promote democracy in Cuba.
"Once Alan was arrested, it is shocking that USAID would imperil his safety even further by running a covert operation in Cuba," Gross' lawyer said in the statement. "USAID has made one absurdly bad decision after another."
USAID on Monday disputed some of the Associated Press report, denying for instance that ZunZuneo intended to incite flash mobs or that it created a shell company.
When USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah appeared before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on Tuesday, Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, called ZunZuneo a "cockamamie idea" that endangered Gross.
Shah denied ZunZuneo was designed to foment dissent against the Cuban government, and he said USAID had not forsaken Gross.
"I think about Alan every day," Shah said.