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US Diplomat Urges Cuba to Release Jailed Contractor

US Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela (file photo)

US Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela (file photo)

The top U.S. diplomat for the Americas is calling for the "unconditional release" of a U.S. contractor who has been held in Cuba for more than one year on suspicion of spying.

Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela made the remark Thursday in Washington during a hearing on Latin America. In his prepared statement, Valenzuela said the U.S. deplores Cuba's recent announcement that prosecutors there intend to seek a 20-year sentence against contractor Alan Gross. Valenzuela described Gross as a dedicated development worker who was in Cuba providing support to members of the island's Jewish community.

Earlier this month, Cuban media reported that Gross is accused of violating Cuba's independence and territorial integrity and that a trial date would be set shortly. Officials there say the United States has been informed of the decision through diplomatic channels and that Gross's family will be allowed to attend the trial.

The White House has said the move "compounds the injustice" Gross has already suffered. A recent statement said officials remain deeply concerned for Gross's well-being and that of his family and called for his immediate release. The State Department accused Cuba of violating justice by holding Gross for so long before charging him.

Gross has been held since December 2009. Havana accuses him of distributing illegal satellite equipment to dissident groups. The U.S. says he works for a private firm outside Washington called Development Alternatives, Incorporated. The company has said Gross was taking part in a U.S. government-sponsored finance program to strengthen civil society in Cuba. The U.S. has denied that Gross is a spy and previously has called for his release.

An official at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana has told VOA that Gross's continued detention is "an obstacle" for increased dialogue between both countries. Jonathan Farrar made the remark during a recent visit to VOA's Washington headquarters.