HAVANA – An American contractor jailed since December 2009 on suspicion of spying will go on trial in Cuba on March 4, U.S. diplomats and state-run Cuban media said Thursday, in a case sure to have profound ramifications for relations between the two Cold War enemies.
Cuban prosecutors are seeking a 20-year prison term for Alan Gross, a 61-year-old native of Potomac, Maryland, who was working for a firm contracted by the U.S. Agency for International Development when he was arrested and sent to Havana's high-security Villa Marista prison.
The U.S. government and Gross' family say he was distributing communications equipment to the island's Jewish community when he was arrested. Cuba says he was part of a multimillion-dollar plan to destabilize the government, and charged him with "acts against the integrity and independence" of the country.
Cuban officials informed the U.S. State Department of the trial date on Wednesday, Molly Koscina, a spokeswoman for America's diplomatic mission in Havana, told The Associated Press. She added that Gross has also been notified that a trial date has been set.
"The Office of Cuban Affairs in Washington DC was informed yesterday," Koscina said. "The Cuban government has said that the family can travel and that U.S. officials can attend."
Cuban state-media confirmed the trial date, and said the proceedings would be held at Havana's Popular Provisional Tribunal.
"This information was transmitted through diplomatic channels to the United States government, which was also notified that consular representatives, family members of Mr. Gross and his family lawyers can participate in the trial," said a report on the state-run news Website Cubadebate.
Judy Gross, Alan Gross' wife, said in an e-mail to the AP that she understands the trial is likely to last one or two days, but she said she has not yet decided if she will attend. The couple's 26-year-old daughter is currently recovering from surgery for breast cancer, and Alan Gross' mother was just diagnosed with lung cancer, making travel difficult.
"Now, more than ever, I beg the Cuban government to let Alan come home on humanitarian grounds. He has already served a 15-month prison sentence," she wrote.
She said she is worried about her husband's ability to "sustain the emotional pain and stress he is under," as well as his health. He has lost more than 90 pounds since being imprisoned.
News that a date would be set for Gross's trial came first in a Twitter posting sent from State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, though he did not state the date.
Crowley said in the Twitter posting that the U.S. hopes Gross will receive a fair trial and can be allowed to come home. He said what Gross did "is not a crime."
Relations between Cuba and the United States have reverted to their icy norm after a brief period of optimism following the election of U.S. President Barack Obama that the countries could put away their decades of enmity.
On Wednesday, Obama denounced Cuba's human rights record and called on President Raul Castro's government to release political prisoners and stop harassing the mother of a Cuban hunger striker who died last year.
While Obama's administration has taken several steps to loosen some travel and financial restrictions on Cuba, U.S. officials have said repeatedly that relations cannot improve in any meaningful way while Gross remains in custody.
The United States has maintained a 48-year trade embargo on Cuba.
As recently as January, a senior State Department official was allowed to meet with Gross in custody, and U.S. officials were voicing optimism he would soon be released.
One scenario mentioned privately at the time was that the American might be convicted, sentenced to time served and deported. But that was before Cuban prosecutors announced earlier this month that they would seek such a lengthy jail term.
The project Gross worked with was part of a $40 million-a-year USAID program to promote democracy and political change on the island.
U.S. officials have defended the program and said they will never stop supporting democracy and openness in Cuba. Detractors of the Cuba project have criticized it as ineffective and counterproductive.
While Gross claims to have been working with the 1,500-strong Jewish community, the leaders of the island's two main Jewish groups have said they had nothing to do with him.
Associated Press reporter Jessica Gresko in Washington contributed to this report.