The Cuban government announced Friday that the country will grant amnesty to and free 2,900 prisoners including those convicted of political crimes. The announcement was motivated by humanitarian concerns [AP report], in an effort by President Raul Castro to establish good will in anticipation of a visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Cuba scheduled for next spring. Alan Gross, a US citizen who is serving a 15-year prison sentence [JURIST report] for installing internet equipment as part of a US program, will not be pardoned [Reuters report] along with the thousands of other prisoners. The ruling Council of State took into account appeals for amnesty from both Roman Catholic Church officials in Cuba and family members of the prisoners. However, the head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights criticized the amnesty as merely meant to protect Cuba's image rather than a signal of real reform. Cuba has had a history of allegedly rooting out political dissent [HRW backgrounder] through criminal prosecutions.
In March, a court in Cuba sentenced Gross to 15 years in prison for attempting to undermine the communist government of Cuba. US National Security spokesman Tommy Vietor immediately denounced the ruling, calling the 15-year sentence an "injustice." Before this incident, the historically strained relations between the US and Cuba had shown signs of improvement. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama [official profile] ordered [JURIST report] the Departments of State, Treasury, and Homeland Security [official websites] to take steps to ease restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba.