By Rosa Tania Valdes
HAVANA (Reuters) - A U.S. aid contractor facing up to 20 years in prison was to go on trial in Cuba on Friday, accused of illegally supplying Internet gear to dissidents in a case that has spotlighted controversial U.S. activities on the communist-led island.
Cuba says Alan Gross, 61, distributed sophisticated satellite communications equipment under a U.S. program that is outlawed and considered subversive by the Cuban government.
The United States said he was providing Internet access to Jewish groups but committed no crime. The case has halted a brief period of progress in U.S.-Cuba relations and could damage relations for years if Gross is locked away for a long time.
A casually dressed Gross was seen arriving at the court 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 being let 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.
Wife Judy Gross has pleaded with Cuba to release him for humanitarian reasons because their 26-year-old daughter and Alan Gross' 88-year-old mother have cancer.
She arrived at the court shortly before the trial but did not speak to reporters. U.S. consular officials also were seen going into the court.
Gross was a contractor for a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program launched under President George W. Bush to foster political change in Cuba.
Cuban leaders view his work as part of long-standing U.S. efforts to topple the communist government put in place after Fidel Castro rose to power in a 1959 revolution.
(Additional reporting by Marc Frank, Esteban Israel and Jeff Franks; Writing by Jeff Franks; Editing by Bill Trott)