A U.S. government contractor charged with committing acts threatening Cuba's independence has gone on trial in Havana in a controversial case that has become a thorny political issue between the Castro regime and Washington.
The contractor, Alan Phillip Gross, 61, is accused of illegally distributing sophisticated satellite
communications equipment for Internet access under an American program that is outlawed and considered subversive by the Cuban government.
He faces a possible 20-year sentence for "acts against the integrity and independence"
The trial, which involved a panel of judges hearing testimony and reviewing evidence, was closed to the media
Friday. It's expected to last a day or two. And a verdict would be announced immediately. A decision on a sentence could take several days. But some observers believe there will be a political solution that would free Gross.
Since his arrest in December 2009, the U.S. government has maintained that Gross was in Cuba to provide Internet access
to the island's 1,500-strong Jewish community.
But Cuban Jewish leaders have kept their distance and there were reports recently that some Cuban Jews may testify
Gross, a technology expert and federal vendor
whose specialty is bringing satellite signals to remote locations, is Jewish and lives in the Washington suburb of Potomac, Md. He was in Cuba working for Development Alternatives Inc., a State Department contractor that hired him under a $8.6 million contract from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
A frequent visitor to Cuba under his subcontract, Gross entered the island on a tourist visa.
But he was actually there as an "independent business and economic development consultant" for the government contractor under a controversial program begun under President George W. Bush to effect political change – or in diplomatic parlance, regime change – in Cuba.
Though his bosses denied that Gross was an intelligence agent, there was secrecy surrounding his mission, according to an investigative piece by Politics Daily's Bonnie Goldstein
. At the time of his arrest, Development Alternatives Inc. issued a statement: "The detained individual was an employee of a program subcontractor, which was implementing a competitively issued subcontract to assist Cuban civil society organizations."
Gross was arrested at Havana's José Martí International Airport as he tried to board a plane to leave the country. He has been in prison since then. In the meantime, his 26-year-old daughter and his 88-year-old mother have been diagnosed with cancer, according to the Center for Democracy in the Americas
, a Cuba watchdog.
On Friday, Gross was dressed casually
and driven in a black car with Cuban security agents for his appearance in court, located in a Havana suburb. U.S. consular officials also attended.
His wife, Judy Gross, her hair in a coiffed bob and wearing a gray outfit and sunglasses, was at the proceedings accompanied by her American lawyer, Peter Kahn. She did not speak to reporters, but she has previously pleaded for his release on humanitarian grounds.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Gross has been "unjustly jailed for far too long. 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."