By Rosa Tania Valdes
HAVANA (Reuters) - A U.S. aid contractor accused of illegally supplying Internet gear to dissidents went on trial in Cuba on Friday in a case that could put him behind bars for 20 years and expose controversial U.S. activities aimed at undermining Cuba's communist government.
Cuba says Alan Gross, 61, distributed sophisticated satellite communications equipment for Internet access under a U.S. program that is outlawed and considered subversive by the Cuban government.
The United States, at odds with Cuba for more than five decades, said he was providing Internet access to Jewish groups but committed no crime.
The case halted a brief period of improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations and could damage them for years if Gross is locked away for a long time.
A casually dressed Gross was seen arriving at the court, located in a former residence in a Havana suburb, in a black car accompanied by Cuban security agents.
A panel of judges will hear testimony and review evidence in a proceeding expected to last a day or two. The foreign press is not allowed in to cover the trial.
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, who has been jailed since his arrest in Havana on December 3, 2009.
Some observers believe a political solution will be reached that will allow Gross to go free soon.
U.S. 'DEEPLY CONCERNED'
U.S. 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."
Wife 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.
Accompanied by her U.S. lawyer, Peter Kahn, she arrived at the court shortly before the trial but did not speak to reporters. U.S. consular officials also went into the court.
Gross was a contractor for a U.S. Agency for International Development program begun under President George W. Bush to foster political change in Cuba.
The U.S. programs have come under criticism 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 his 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 officials, an Internet expert equated Gross to the "mercenaries" who took part in the 1961 U.S.-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs.
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 Marc Frank and Esteban Israel in Havana, and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Writing by Jeff Franks; Editing by Bill Trott)