Monday, 7 February 2011

US mercenary to be tried in Cuba

Cuba to seek 20-year sentence for U.S. contractor
Source: Reuters, 04 February 2011.
By Jeff Franks

Cuban prosecutors will seek a 20-year prison sentence for U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross, who is suspected of espionage in a case that has been a stumbling block for U.S.-Cuba relations, Communist Party newspaper Granma said on Friday.

A government statement posted on the paper's website said Gross was accused of "Acts Against the Independence and Territorial Integrity of the State" and that U.S. diplomats had been advised of the charge. A trial date for Gross will be set soon, the statement said.

Gross, believed to be 61, has been detained since he was arrested at his Havana hotel in December 2009. Cuban authorities accuse him of illegally importing satellite communications equipment and of possibly spying.

The United States has said Gross was only providing satellite communications equipment and Internet access for Jewish groups in Cuba and was not a spy. He was working in a U.S. program begun by the Bush administration aimed at promoting political change in Cuba, which the Cuban government views as subversive. The U.S. has previously demanded his release and said there would be no major initiatives in U.S.-Cuba relations until he is free. Under Cuban law, he could have faced the death penalty for his crime.

His detention has become a serious obstacle between the two nations, stalling steps to improve relations by the governments of U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.

Last month, a senior U.S. State Department official expressed cautious optimism that Gross would be tried and freed once formal charges had been pressed. A Western diplomat in Havana said at the time the trial would likely take place in a few weeks and that Gross was expected to plead guilty, then be sent back to the United States.

Gross has recently been visited by U.S. Senator Carl Levin and, separately, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson who was in Havana for talks with Cuba on migration issues.

Gross' wife Judy visited her husband last summer and told Reuters in October she had written a letter to Cuban President Raul Castro expressing the couple's remorse for his work on the communist-led island. She has pleaded with Cuba to release Gross because their daughter is being treated for breast cancer, but there has been no public reply by the government.

Gross, who is being held in a cell at a military hospital, is said to have lost 90 pounds (41 kg) in jail and suffers health problems.