March 4, 2011 -- After being held in Cuba without charges for over a year, 61-year-old American Alan Gross appears in a Cuban court today, facing a possible 20-year sentence for allegedly bringing communications equipment into the country illegally.
On Thursday the State Department called on Cuban authorities to clear Gross of all charges.
"We hope it will be resolved so that Mr. Gross can return home to the United States. He's been in prison for too long," spokesman P.J. Crowley said. Cuban officials have told the Americans they will allow U.S. officials to witness the trial.
Gross, a Maryland native, was detained in December 2009 as he tried to depart Havana's airport. He had been working as a U.S. government subcontractor distributing communications devices to Jewish communities in Havana, according to U.S. officials. He's now accused of "acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state."
Gross was working for the Bethesda-based Development Associates International on a USAID program that promotes democracy. He has been held in Havana's maximum-security Villa Marista prison, most of that time without charge.
A U.S. State Department official, asking not to be named, told ABC News, "We deplore the Cuban government's announcement that Cuban prosecutors intend to seek a 20 year sentence against Mr. Gross. As we have said many times before, Mr. Gross is a dedicated international development worker who was in Cuba providing support to members of the Cuban Jewish community.
"He has been held without charges for more than a year, contrary to all international human rights obligations and commitments regarding justice and due process," said the official. "He should be home with his family now.
The Associated Press reports that Jewish groups in Havana have denied having any ties with Gross and may even testify against him. The AP also reports the trial may only last a couple of days, with a verdict coming quickly and sentencing within a week.
U.S. officials have brought up Gross' case during meetings with Cuban officials, including the latest round of migration talks in January. Officials at the time were optimistic Gross might be released after a quick trial, but the charges with a possible 20-year sentence were announced just weeks later.
Despite the stalemate over Gross' detention, in January the Obama administration loosened travel restrictions imposed by the Bush administration on Americans wishing to travel to Cuba.
Trial for American Held Over a Year in Cuba
Last December, on the one-year anniversary of his detention, the State Department called on Cuban authorities to release Gross on humanitarian grounds. He is diabetic and his family and American officials say he has lost 90 pounds during his detention.
Gross' family has stepped up a public relations effort to build support for his case, especially since his daughter recently underwent surgery for cancer.
U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, have speculated that Cuban authorities may try to swap Gross for five Cubans who were convicted by the United States of spying and are now held in a Florida prison.
Gross has even been assigned the same Cuban lawyer who represented the so-called Cuban Five. Still, those same American officials downplay the chance of a prisoner swap.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.