Havana: Prosecutors are charging a jailed American contractor with "acts against the integrity and independence" of Cuba and requesting a 20-year jail term, state news media reported on Friday, dimming hopes the 60-year-old Maryland native would be allowed to go home soon.
Alan Gross has been jailed without charge since December 2009 on suspicion of spying.
The US government, and his family, say he was distributing communications equipment to the island's Jewish community. They have long called for him to be released, or at least brought to trial.
State-controlled website Cubadebate said that a trial date would be set shortly and that Gross' family, his lawyer, and American consular representatives will be allowed to attend.
"Following an exhaustive investigation the Prosecution is requesting a 20-year prison sentence for the defendant," the website said.
The US reacted strongly, denouncing the decision and arguing that Gross should be freed immediately.
"We deplore the Cuban government's announcement that Cuban prosecutors intend to seek a 20-year sentence for Alan Gross," said Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the US Interests Section in Havana, which Washington maintains instead of an embassy.
"Mr Gross is a dedicated international development worker," she said. "His imprisonment without charges for more than a year is contrary to all international human rights obligations ... He should be home with his family now."
Peter J Kahn, Gross' US-based lawyer, said that while he was disappointed with the severity of the charges, it was "a positive development" that the case was finally moving forward.
He described his client as a pawn "caught in the middle of a long-standing political dispute between Cuba and the United States”.
"We respectfully urge the Cuban authorities to free Alan immediately for time served," Kahn said in a statement.
Gross' wife, Judy, has appealed for her husband's release on humanitarian grounds, saying that he has lost 90 pounds while in custody and that she was shocked by his appearance when she visited him last summer.
The couple's oldest daughter has been diagnosed with breast cancer since her father was detained.
The decision to seek such a long jail term is certain to be a major setback for US-Cuban relations, which had seemed to be improving only a few weeks ago.
First Published: Saturday, February 05, 2011, 09:26