US contractor convicted in Cuba; 15-year sentence

The Associated Press
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 4:16 PM

HAVANA -- A Cuban court on Saturday found U.S. contractor Alan Gross guilty of crimes against the state and sentenced him to 15 years in prison, a verdict that brought a swift and strongly worded condemnation from Washington.

The court said prosecutors had proved that Gross, 61, was working on a "subversive" program paid for by the United States that aimed to bring down Cuba's revolutionary system. Prosecutors had sought a 20-year jail term.

Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the U.S. diplomatic mission on the island, termed the decision "appalling" and called on Cuba to release Gross immediately.

"We reject and deplore this ruling," she told The Associated Press. "It is appalling that the Cuban government seeks to criminalize what most of the world deems normal, in this case access to information and technology."

Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, said the ruling "adds another injustice to Alan Gross' ordeal."

"He has already spent too many days in detention and should not spend one more," he said. "We urge the immediate release of Mr. Gross so that he can return home to his wife and family."

Gross was arrested in December 2009 while on a USAID-backed democracy-building project. The U.S. government and Gross's family say he was working to improve Internet access for the island's Jewish community, did nothing wrong, and should be released.

Cuban officials have called him a mercenary and maintained his motives were more nefarious. The court said the program that Gross worked on - part of a $20 million Washington-effort to support democracy on the island - showed that the U.S. government continues to seek the overthrow of a Cuban government ruled since 1959 by brothers Fidel and Raul Castro.

The Havana court found the evidence presented at the trial "demonstrated the participation of the North American contractor in a subversive project of the U.S. government that aimed to destroy the Revolution through the use of communications systems out of the control of authorities," according to a statement read out on the afternoon news.

It said that during testimony in the two-day trial, Gross "recognized having been used and manipulated" by his company - Bethesda, Maryland-based Development Alternatives, Inc. - as well as by USAID and the State Department. It said he has the right to appeal the sentence to the Supreme People's Tribunal, Cuba's equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since the trial began, Cuba has stepped up its denunciation of such programs. Last week, state television aired a program detailing the history of the USAID effort, with officials saying it showed Washington was waging a cyberwar. Cuban media have promised to air a second installment on Monday, possibly including footage of Gross's testimony at the trial, which was closed to the foreign press.

Development Alternatives was awarded a multimillion-dollar contract for the program in which Gross was involved, and Gross received more than a half million dollars through his company, despite the fact he spoke little Spanish and had no history of working in Cuba. Gross traveled to the island several times over a short period on a tourist visa, apparently raising Cuban suspicions.

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