HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for crimes against the Cuban state, state-run television reported on Saturday, in the latest setback to relations between two Cold War enemies.
A panel of judges reached the decision after a two-day trial last week in which prosecutors said Gross was involved in what the government described as a U.S.-funded “subversive project” to “topple the Revolution.”
The case was the latest flare-up in U.S.-Cuba relations that have been sour since a 1959 revolution put Fidel Castro in power.
Gross, 61, was convicted of “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state” for working to set up clandestine Internet networks for Cuba dissidents using “sophisticated” communications technology.
Prosecutors sought a 20-year sentence for the longtime development worker, who has been jailed since his arrest in Havana on December 3, 2009.
The United States, which has contended from the beginning that Gross was only setting up Internet access for the island’s small Jewish community, reacted angrily to the decision.
“Today’s sentencing adds another injustice to Alan Gross’s ordeal. He has already spent too many days in detention and should not spend one more,” White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.
“We urge the immediate release of Mr. Gross so that he can return home to his wife and family,” Vietor said.
U.S. spokeswoman Gloria Berbena at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana said Gross was “in Cuba helping average Cubans connect with the rest of the world. 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.”
Gross’s attorney Peter Kahn said the Gross family was “devastated by the verdict and harsh sentence announced today.”
“Alan and his family have paid an enormous personal price in the long-standing political feud between Cuba and the United States. We will continue to work with Alan’s Cuban attorney in exploring any and all options available to him, including the possibility of an appeal,” he said in a statement.
Few details of the trial have been released, but the television report said Gross told the court he had been “used and manipulated” by DAI, the Maryland-based company that had contracted him to work in Cuba.
DAI had a contract from the U.S. Agency for International Development to conduct projects aimed at promoting political change on the Caribbean island.
Gross accused DAI of having put him in danger and his current situation of “ruining the life and economy of his family,” Cuba said in a statement last week at the end of the trial.
His detention brought to a halt a mild warming in U.S.-Cuba relations after U.S. President Barack Obama took office and the United States has said it will not undertake any more initiatives with the Caribbean island until Gross is free.
Cuban prosecutors said Gross targeted young people, universities, religious groups, women’s groups, racial groups and cultural types.
Gross worked in Cuba on a tourist visa under a controversial U.S. AID program aimed at promoting political change on the island.
The programs have been criticized in the United States for doing little more than provoking the Cuban government.
Cuba views the activities as part of the longstanding U.S. efforts to subvert the government and has made them illegal.
Although Internet access is limited in Cuba, a recently leaked video of a Ministry of Interior briefing showed an expert saying the Internet was the latest front in the two countries’ long ideological war.
Some observers think a political solution will be reached that will allow Gross to go free soon. But others believe Cuba has little interest in improving relations with the U.S., which has imposed a trade embargo against the island since 1962.
Judy Gross, who attended the trial, has pleaded for her husband’s release on humanitarian grounds because their 26-year-old daughter and Alan Gross’s 88-year-old mother both have cancer.
She said Gross, who looked gaunt when he was seen going into the trial, has lost 90 pounds (41 kg) in prison and has physical ailments.
Cuba was expected to use the trial to put a spotlight on U.S. activities on the island, but instead aired two television programs showing what it portrayed as U.S. treachery on the island.
Editing by Doina Chiacu and Vicki Allen