By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - An American aid contractor caught up in one of the world's last Cold War conflicts goes on trial on Friday for crimes against the Cuban state in a case that could put him in prison for 20 years and further damage U.S.-Cuba relations.
Alan Gross, 61, who already has spent 15 months in jail, is accused of illegally importing satellite communications equipment under a U.S. program outlawed on the communist-led island.
A three-person panel will hear his case, which like most Cuban trials is expected to last only a day or two.
The case could set back U.S.-Cuba relations for years if Cuba decides to make an example of Gross and lock him away for years. But some observers believe a political solution has been or will be reached that will allow Gross to go free soon.
His wife, Judy Gross, has pleaded with Cuba to release him for humanitarian reasons because their 26-year-old daughter and Alan Gross' 88-year-old mother are battling cancer. She also has said her husband's health is deteriorating in prison.
The United States has said Gross, a longtime development worker who was in Cuba on a tourist visa, was setting up improved Internet access for Jewish groups, and insists that he committed no crimes.
He was a contractor for a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program begun by the Bush administration to promote political change in Cuba.
Cuban leaders say the program is just another in a long line of U.S. attempts at subversion dating to the earliest days of the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro, now 84, in power. His younger brother Raul Castro succeeded him as president three years ago.
Gross will be defended by Cuban lawyer Nuris Pinero, who is well known in Cuba for participating in the defense of five Cuban agents jailed in the United States since 1998.
Some believe that Pinero's presence hints at Cuba's desire to swap Gross for the agents, who were linked to a 1996 shootdown of two U.S. private planes by Cuban military jets.
"U.S. DUPE" DEFENSE?
Pinero likely will "portray Gross as a dupe of U.S. intelligence rather than someone with intent to damage the Cuban state," said Miami-based attorney Timothy Ashby, a former U.S. Commerce Department specialist on Cuba.
Gross is the first American to be charged under a Cuban law that prohibits "acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state," which puts him in a precarious situation with a government intent on stopping U.S. interference.
For Cuba, the case is an opportunity to dissuade others from working in the controversial U.S. programs, said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuba expert at the University of Denver.
"Nobody after Gross will be able to say they ran the risk of sentences up to 20 years without knowing it," he said.
Goodwill may be in short supply among Cuban leaders, who consistently and harshly express their frustration at lack of change in U.S. policy under President Barack Obama.
He has taken modest steps to improve relations by easing the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against the island but Cubans say Obama has done too little to end five decades of hostility.
U.S. activities in Cuba may be on trial in the case as much as Gross.
In the past few days, Cuba has revealed with great fanfare two government agents who infiltrated two of Cuba's best-known dissident groups -- the Ladies in White and the Cuban Commission of Human Rights -- for years.
They have talked at length about U.S. backing for dissidents, who they said were in it for the money that flowed from Washington and Cuban exile groups in Miami.
(Additional reporting by Esteban Israel; Editing by Bill Trott)