Obama administration condemns sentencing of U.S. contractor in Cuba

The Obama administration urged Cuba to immediately release U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross after he was sentenced on Saturday to 15 years in prison for crimes against the state.

“Today’s sentencing adds another injustice to Alan Gross’s ordeal,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement. “He has already spent too many days in detention and should not spend one more. We urge the immediate release of Mr. Gross so that he can return home to his wife and family.”

Gross, 61, has been jailed since his arrest in December 2009 when he was accused of setting up illegal internet connections for the Jewish communities in Havana as part of a $20 million USAID-backed program to promote democracy in the communist island-state. 

U.S.-Cuba relations had appeared to warm since President Obama took office with the administration loosening some travel restrictions but today's verdict could put them in the deep freeze. 

After a two-day trial that ended a week ago, a panel of five judges reached the sentencing decision on Saturday. Prosecutors alleged that Gross was involved in a U.S.-funded “subversive project” to bring down the long-standing government ruled since 1959 by brothers Fidel and Raul Castro.

Gross was convicted of “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state.” He was accused of setting up the internet networks for Cuba dissidents using "sophisticated" communications technology.

Gross could appeal the sentence to the Supreme People's Tribunal, Cuba's highest court.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday called on Cuba to free Gross saying in congressional testimony: “We want him home.”

Prosecutors sought a 20-year sentence in the case.

U.S. officials have demanded that Gross be released ever since he was arrested more than a year ago. They argue that he didn't do anything wrong and was only setting up Internet connections for the island's Jewish community of about 1,200 people. 

Gross also could be released through a court action or executive pardon on humanitarian grounds. His wife Judy says her husband has lost more than 90 pounds during his detention, and that his 26-year-old daughter and 88-year-old mother both have cancer.

Several Cuba experts have said Cuba officials used the case to suggest to its public that U.S. democracy-building programs have subversive intent. With the conviction there isn't any strategic reason to keep him in prison much longer, the Associated Press reported.