Friday, March 4, 2011

Trial of US contractor ends first day in Cuba

HAVANA (AP) -- A marathon first day in the trial of a U.S. government contractor facing a 20-year sentence on charges he sought to undermine the island's communist government wrapped up late Friday, with no verdict.

The wife of Alan Gross, his lawyers and U.S. consular officials left the courtroom in a converted mansion in a once-prosperous neighborhood of Havana about nine hours after testimony began, and his American lawyer later called on Cuban authorities to release Gross on humanitarian grounds.

"Alan and his Cuban counsel presented a vigorous defense today," said the lawyer, Peter J. Kahn.

He said Gross was suffering "extreme mental stress" and reiterated the family's call that he be released on humanitarian grounds. "We respectfully urge the Cuban authorities to free Alan immediately for time served."

Kahn gave no details about what was said in the courtroom - which was off limits to the media.

Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, said consular officials had been told the trial would reconvene Saturday morning. It was expected to last no more than two or three days. Sentencing, should Gross be convicted, would likely come in about two weeks.

The 61-year-old Maryland native was arrested in December 2009 and is accused of illegally bringing communications equipment into Cuba for Development Associates International as part of a USAID-backed democracy program. The outcome of the case is sure to have a profound impact on relations between Washington and Havana, particularly if he is convicted.

U.S. officials have made clear no meaningful improvement in ties can take place while Gross remains jailed.

Gross's family and U.S. officials say he was bringing communications equipment to Cuba's 1,500-strong Jewish community. Cuban Jewish groups denied having anything to do with him.

In Washington on Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. government was "deeply concerned" about Gross' fate.

"He has been unjustly jailed for far too long," she said. "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 his long ordeal."

The proceedings offered Cuba a chance to highlight the Washington-backed democracy-building efforts like the one Gross was working on, which Havana says are designed to topple the government.

Washington spent $20 million a year on the programs in 2009 and 2010, with USAID controlling most of that and doling out the work to subcontractors.

Development Associates International, or DAI, 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.

The USAID programs have been criticized repeatedly in congressional reports as being wasteful and ineffective. In March 2010, Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Democratic Rep. Howard Berman of California - both longtime critics of Washington's 48-year trade embargo on Cuba - temporarily held up new funding in the wake of Gross' arrest. The money has begun flowing again, though U.S. officials say DAI is no longer part of the program.

A senior congressional aide with knowledge of the USAID programs told The Associated Press the Cuba effort - which was ramped up under the Bush administration with the goal of promoting "regime change" on the island - was on autopilot by the time President Barack Obama took office.

"Neither the State Department nor USAID knew who all of these people were or what they were doing in the name of the US government and with US taxpayer money," he said, adding that oversight was insufficient to tell whether the programs were effective.

He said the contractors themselves designed and evaluated the programs and determined whether they were doing a good job.

"They had the mandate, the money, and political advocates in Congress," he said.

The aide, who agreed to discuss the matter only if not quoted by name because he was not authorized to discuss the programs with the media, said that "to this day" it is not clear who Gross was working with in Cuba.

Cuban authorities have not spoken publicly about the case against Gross. But a video that surfaced days before the charges were announced indicated prosecutors would likely argue that the USAID programs amounted to an attack on the island's sovereignty.

Gross's wife, Judy, has appealed to Cuba to release her husband on humanitarian grounds, noting that the couple's 26-year-old daughter, Shira, is suffering from cancer and that Gross's elderly mother is also very ill.

On a blog she started to track her cancer treatment, Shira Gross asks followers to keep her father in their thoughts.

"G-d listens to our prayers, so please pray for his release," she wrote in an entry posted Thursday.

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