US contractor convicted in Cuba; 15-year sentence
Posted on Saturday, 03.12.11
US contractor convicted in Cuba; 15-year sentence
BH PAUL HAVEN
HAVANA — A Cuban court on Saturday found U.S. contractor Alan Gross
guilty of crimes against the state and sentenced him to 15 years in
prison, a verdict that brought a swift and strongly worded condemnation
The court said prosecutors had proved that Gross, 61, was working on a
"subversive" program paid for by the United States that aimed to bring
down Cuba's revolutionary system. Prosecutors had sought a 20-year jail
Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the U.S. diplomatic mission on the
island, termed the decision "appalling" and called on Cuba to release
"We reject and deplore this ruling," she told The Associated Press. "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."
Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House's National Security
Council, said the ruling "adds another injustice to Alan Gross' ordeal."
"He has already spent too many days in detention and should not spend
one more," he said. "We urge the immediate release of Mr. Gross so that
he can return home to his wife and family."
Gross was arrested in December 2009 while on a USAID-backed
democracy-building project. The U.S. government and Gross's family say
he was working to improve Internet access for the island's Jewish
community, did nothing wrong, and should be released.
Cuban officials have called him a mercenary and maintained his motives
were more nefarious. The court said the program that Gross worked on –
part of a $20 million Washington-effort to support democracy on the
island – showed that the U.S. government continues to seek the overthrow
of a Cuban government ruled since 1959 by brothers Fidel and Raul Castro.
The Havana court found the evidence presented at the trial "demonstrated
the participation of the North American contractor in a subversive
project of the U.S. government that aimed to destroy the Revolution
through the use of communications systems out of the control of
authorities," according to a statement read out on the afternoon news.
It said that during testimony in the two-day trial, Gross "recognized
having been used and manipulated" by his company – Bethesda,
Maryland-based Development Alternatives, Inc. – as well as by USAID and
the State Department. It said he has the right to appeal the sentence to
the Supreme People's Tribunal, Cuba's equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Since the trial began, Cuba has stepped up its denunciation of such
programs. Last week, state television aired a program detailing the
history of the USAID effort, with officials saying it showed Washington
was waging a cyberwar. Cuban media have promised to air a second
installment on Monday, possibly including footage of Gross's testimony
at the trial, which was closed to the foreign press.
Development Alternatives 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 Development Alternatives
is no longer part of the program.
While the verdict was not unexpected, it is sure to have a chilling
impact on relations. U.S. officials have said repeatedly that no
rapprochement is possible while Gross remains jailed.
Now that Gross has been convicted, his backers will try to get him
released through a court action or executive pardon, possibly on
humanitarian grounds. His wife Judy says Gross has lost more than 90
pounds since his arrest, and that his 26-year-old daughter and
88-year-old mother are both suffering from cancer.
Supporters, from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to U.S. Jewish groups, have
already made impassioned pleas to Cuban President Raul Castro to free
Gross. Jackson offered to fly to Havana personally to mediate, reprising
a role he has played previously in Cuba and elsewhere.
Several Cuba experts have said Havana hoped to use Gross's case to shine
a light on the democracy-building programs. Now that he has been
convicted, they argue, Cuba has no strategic reason to keep him in
prison much longer.
However, such a process could take weeks or months to play out, if it
happens at all.
Gross's American lawyer, Peter J. Kahn, said his client's family was
"devastated by the verdict and harsh sentence."
He said he would work with Gross's Cuban lawyer to seek his release
through appeal or other avenue."
The court is made up of a five-judge panel, including three professional
judges and two citizens trained to hear cases and empaneled for a month.
A simple majority is enough to convict. The newscast did not say whether
the decision was unanimous.