Aid contractor Gross goes on trial in Cuba

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 18, 2011 4:11 PM

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - An American aid contractor who worked in a U.S. program aimed at undermining Cuba's communist government went on trial on Friday, accused of crimes against the state, but no verdict was reached and testimony will continue on Saturday, trial observers said.

Alan Gross, 61, faces a possible 20-year sentence if convicted in a case that halted a brief period of improvement in U.S.-Cuban relations and could damage them for years if Gross is imprisoned for long.

He is accused of supplying Internet equipment, including sophisticated satellite phones, to dissidents in violation of Cuban law.

Gross spoke on his own behalf in the trial, making "a free declaration" and responding to questions from his attorneys, prosecutors and the panel of judges hearing the case, according to a Cuban government statement.

Gross and his Cuban lawyers "presented a vigorous defense today," said Peter Kahn, his U.S. lawyer, in a separate statement.

But, he said, "We respectfully urge the Cuban authorities to free Alan immediately."

The government said other witnesses also testified and evidence from investigators was presented.

Kahn attended the trial with wife Judy Gross, but Gross' defense is being conducted by Cuban lawyers.

U.S. consular officials attended the trial, but neither they nor a U.S. spokeswoman could comment. The foreign press was not allowed in the court.

The United States, at odds with Cuba for more than five decades, said he provided Internet service to Jewish groups but committed no crimes.

A casually dressed Gross was seen on Friday morning arriving at the court, located in a former residence in a Havana suburb, in a black car accompanied by a caravan of Cuban security agents. The same car and caravan were seen leaving immediately after testimony ended.

Verdicts are usually rendered quickly in Cuban trials but decisions on sentencing can take several days.

Prosecutors said they would seek a sentence of 20 years for Gross, jailed since his arrest in Havana on December 3, 2009.

POLITICAL SOLUTION?

Some observers believe a political solution will be reached that will allow Gross to go free soon.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Washington the United States was "deeply concerned" about the case and called for his release.

"He's been unjustly jailed for far too long," she said. "We call on the government of Cuba to release him and unconditionally allow him to leave Cuba and return to his family to bring an end to their long ordeal."

Judy Gross has pleaded with Cuba for his release for humanitarian reasons because their 26-year-old daughter and Alan Gross' 88-year-old mother have cancer.

Gross was a contractor for a U.S. Agency for International Development program to foster political change in Cuba.

The programs have been criticized in the United States for doing little more than provoking the Cuban government, but supporters say they are helping fight Cuba's one-party state.

Cuba was expected to use the trial to put a spotlight on U.S. activities on the island. Cuban leaders view Gross' work as part of long-standing U.S. efforts to sabotage the communist government put in place after Fidel Castro rose to power in a 1959 revolution.

In a recently leaked video of a Ministry of Interior briefing, an Internet expert equated Gross to the "mercenaries" who took part in the 1961 U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion.

Internet access is limited in Cuba but the expert said the Internet is the newest front in the long ideological war between the two countries.

U.S. Jewish organizations have appealed for Gross' release but Cuban Jewish leaders have kept their distance from him. There have been reports Cuban Jews may testify against him.

"We don't need the sophisticated equipment that supposedly Gross brought to Cuba. We have legal Internet," Cuban Jewish leader Adela Dworin told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes, Nelson Acosta and Esteban Israel in Havana, and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Writing by Jeff Franks; Editing by Todd Eastham and Jackie Frank)