HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross will face trial in Cuba on March 4, a U.S. spokeswoman said on Thursday, in a case that could bring him a 20-year prison sentence and worsen U.S.-Cuba relations.
Gross, who has been held in Havana since December 2009, was charged on February 4 with committing crimes against the security of the state for illegally importing satellite communications equipment under a U.S. program outlawed on the communist-led island.
U.S. spokeswoman Molly Koscina at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana said Cuba had notified the United States of the trial date, but gave no further details.
She said U.S. officials would attend the trial, which experts have said would likely be conducted by a panel of judges. Cuban trials typically last only a day or two, they said.
The United States has said Gross, a 61-year-old development worker, was in Cuba providing improved Internet access to Jewish groups, but that he broke no laws.
He was a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program begun by the Bush administration aimed at promoting political change in Cuba.
Cuban leaders view the program as part of longstanding U.S. attempts to topple the government that Fidel Castro, after taking power in a 1959 revolution, ran for 49 years before brother Raul Castro succeeded him three years ago.
Cuba said it would seek a 20-year sentence for Gross. The Cuban announcement surprised U.S. officials, who had indicated they expected him to be released soon.
His detention has become an obstacle between the two countries, stalling steps by U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro to improve ties.
The United States has said since he was detained there would be no major initiatives in U.S.-Cuba relations until he is freed.
His wife, Judy Gross, has pleaded with the Cuban government to release her husband so that he can be with his 26-year-old daughter who has breast cancer.
She was allowed to visit her husband in a cell at a Havana hospital last summer and said he had lost 90 pounds (41 kg) and suffering serious physical ailments.
She wrote a letter in August to President Castro expressing remorse for her husband's work in Cuba, but that he meant no harm to Cuba.
U.S. officials have expressed hope that even if Gross is convicted, as is widely expected, he will be released quickly.
If not, U.S.-Cuba relations are unlikely to improve anytime soon and perhaps become worse, despite Obama's comments last year that he would like to "recast" relations to end five decades of hostility.
Experts have said Cuba may want U.S. concessions, such as ending the USAID program or the release of five Cuban agents imprisoned in the United States, in exchange for Gross' freedom.
(Reporting by Jeff Franks; Editing by Philip Barbara)