WASHINGTON – The White House expressed concern over Cuba’s decision to seek a 20-year prison sentence for U.S. government contractor Alan Gross, who was arrested more than a year ago for allegedly aiding dissidents on the island.
As it has on several occasions in recent months, the Obama administration also called for Gross’s “immediate release.”
In its statement Friday, the White House said Cuba’s decision, announced earlier in the day, “compounds the injustice suffered by a man helping to increase the free flow of information to, from and among the Cuban people.”
Havana said it will set a trial date in the near future.
Cuban prosecutors will seek a 20-year prison term for Gross for “acts against the independence or territorial integrity” of the Communist-ruled island, according to a statement in Cuba’s official media.
Washington was notified “through diplomatic channels,” the statement said, adding that Gross’s family and attorneys and U.S. consular officials will be permitted to attend the trial.
The White House said Gross has been “unjustly” detained over the past 14 months, adding that “instead of releasing Mr. Gross so he can come home to his wife and family, today’s decision by Cuban authorities compounds the injustice” suffered by the government contractor.
The White House statement followed criticism of the move by the U.S. State Department, which said Friday that the fact Gross was held without formal charges for more than a year was contrary to all of Cuba’s obligations in the human rights sphere and its commitments in terms of justice and due process.
The 61-year-old Gross was arrested in Havana in December 2009 while working for a Maryland company hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development to promote democracy in Cuba.
The State Department said he was detained while distributing laptop computers, mobile phones and other communications equipment among the Jewish community on the island, but the Cuban government claims Gross was aiding dissidents.
Charges were filed against Gross “after an exhaustive process of investigation,” the Cuban government said Friday.
Diplomats at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana have had regular access to Gross, who also received a visit last month from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, in Cuba for migration talks.
Last month, the White House announced measures to ease restrictions on travel and the sending of remittances to the island by U.S. citizens.
But U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela has said recently that Gross’ detention makes it “very difficult to advance on matters of common interest” with Cuba.