Trial of US contractor ends in Cuba, no verdict

Associated Press
Followed by security  forces members, U.S. government contractor Alan Gross, left, arrives to a courthouse to attend a trial in Havana, Cuba, Saturday March 5, 2011. Gross, a 61-year-old Maryland native, was arrested in December 2009, accused of illegally bringing communications equipment into Cuba for Development Associates International as part of a USAID-backed democracy program. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)
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The trial of a U.S. government contractor facing up to 20 years in jail on charges he sought to undermine Cuba's government wrapped up Saturday after both sides gave closing arguments, but with no indication of when a verdict might come.

A statement by the Cuban government Saturday night said that during the trial Gross accepted some responsibility but added that he had been "used" and blamed the company that sent him to the island.

The fate of Alan Gross, a 61-year-old Maryland native detained for more than a year since being caught bringing communications equipment into the communist-run island, was in the hands of a five-judge panel.

Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the U.S. diplomatic mission on the island, reiterated after the government statement was released that no verdict had been announced. She said Gross' Cuban lawyer would be notified when a verdict was reached.

Gross' American lawyer, Peter J. Kahn, issued a short statement earlier, saying only that the trial had ended and that "the family remains hopeful that Alan will be home soon."

Cuban government officials confirmed to The Associated Press that no verdict had been reached despite some reports saying a ruling had been issued. The officials insisted on speaking anonymously because they were not authorized to discuss the case.

Gross was working for Development Alternatives Inc. as part of a USAID-backed "democracy building" program when he was arrested in December 2009. He has been held at Havana's maximum-security Villa Marista jail ever since — most of that time without charge.

His detention has worsened relations between Cuba and Washington, with U.S. officials making clear that no meaningful rapprochment is possible while Gross is in jail.

Cuba says USAID programs like the one Gross was working on are aimed at overthrowing the government of President Raul Castro. U.S. officials and Gross' family insist he was trying to provide Internet service to the island's Jewish community and has done nothing wrong.

According to the government statement read on state television's main news broadcast, Gross "accused DAI of having put him in danger and leading to his current situation, to ruin the life and well-being of his family."

The statement said the judges heard from 10 witnesses and nine experts and were presented with documentary and physical evidence during the two-day trial, which was closed to foreign journalists.

Should Gross be convicted, efforts would immediately turn to getting him released through a court order or executive pardon, possibly on humanitarian grounds. His wife and U.S. officials say Gross has lost more than 90 pounds while in jail, and note that his 26-year-old daughter and 88-year-old mother are both suffering from cancer.

A senior State Department official said as recently as January that she had received signals Cuba would free Gross shortly.

Several analysts say Cuba wanted to use the case to shine a light on the USAID programs, which have long been a source of irritation in Havana. With the trial over, they argue, Cuba has no strategic reason to keep Gross in jail much longer.

The trial began Friday with about nine hours of testimony in a mansion-turned-courtroom in a once-prosperous neighborhood of Havana.

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, lawyers and U.S. consular officials arrived a short time later.

The Cuban Foreign Ministry released a statement Friday night saying Saturday's proceedings — which lasted eight hours — would include the presentation of further evidence and final statements from the prosecution and defense. Trials in Cuba generally only go on for a day or two, with verdicts rendered within days.

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. There were no immediate details offered following Saturday's proceedings.

Kahn, Gross' American lawyer, said Friday his client had "presented a vigorous defense" during the first day of testimony.

He said Gross was suffering "extreme mental stress" and reiterated the family's call that he be released. In Washington on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Cuba to release Gross unconditionally. Gross was also represented by a Cuban attorney, Nuris Pinero.

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 Alternatives Inc., 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.

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Associated Press writer Paul Haven contributed to this report.

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