HAVANA (AP) - 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 from Washington.
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 term.
Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the U.S. diplomatic mission on the island, termed the decision "appalling" and called on Cuba to release Gross immediately.
"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.
Development Alternatives President James Boomgard said Saturday the company was "profoundly disappointed" in the verdict, and called on the government to free Gross.
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.
As recently as January, a senior State Department official said she had gotten signals from the Cuban government that Gross would soon be released, following a trial.
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.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)