Trial Of U.S. Contractor Alan Gross In Cuba Enters Decisive Day

The trial of a U.S. government contractor detained over a year and accused of seeking to undermine Cuba's government entered its second -- and likely decisive -- day Saturday, with testimony and closing arguments expected from both sides.

Alan Gross, who was arrested in December 2009, stands accused of illegally bringing communications equipment into Cuba for Development Associates International as part of a USAID-backed democracy program. His detention has worsened relations between the longtime enemies.

Cuba says the USAID programs are aimed at overthrowing the government of President Raul Castro. U.S. officials and Gross' family insist he has done nothing wrong, and say he should be freed on humanitarian grounds in any case. Gross faces 20 years in jail if convicted.

The trial began Friday with about nine hours of testimony in a mansion-turned-courtroom in a once-prosperous neighborhood of Havana. The proceedings were closed to foreign journalists.
A thin-looking Gross was seen getting out of an official car and entering the court early Saturday, guarded by Cuban security personnel. His wife and lawyers arrived a short time later, signaling the start of the second day of the trial. U.S. consular officials were also present.

The Cuban Foreign Ministry released a statement saying Saturday's proceedings would include the presentation of further evidence and final statements from the prosecution and defense. Trials in Cuba generally only last for a day or two, meaning a verdict could come quickly.

Sentencing, should Gross be convicted, would likely take place within two weeks.

In describing Friday's session, the Foreign Ministry said Gross made a statement and answered questions of the prosecution, defense and court. It said other witnesses and experts also testified. It gave no specifics.

Gross' American lawyer, Peter J. Kahn, said his client "presented a vigorous defense."
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."

Gross' family and U.S. officials have said 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, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. government called on Cuba to release Gross and allow the 61-year-old Maryland native to leave Cuba unconditionally.

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

Washington spent $20 million a year on Cuba democracy 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, and funding was held up briefly in 2010 over concerns following Gross' arrest. The money has begun flowing again, though U.S. officials say DAI is no longer part of the program.

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

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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