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Clinton Urges Cuba to Unconditionally Release US Contractor

Judy Gross, left, wife of US government contractor Alan Gross, and US lawyer Peter J. Kahn arrive to the courthouse where Gross is on trial, accused of 'acts against the integrity and independence' of Cuba, in Havana, Cuba, March 4, 2011

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged the unconditional release of U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross, who went on trial Friday in Cuba on subversion and spy charges. The 61-year-old American, held in Cuba since late 2009, could face 20 years imprisonment if convicted.

Clinton made her public appeal only hours before the long-awaited trial proceedings against Gross began in a Havana courtroom.

Gross faces charges of committing acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the Cuban state in connection with his activities in Cuba as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Cuba says Gross distributed satellite communications gear for Internet access under a U.S. program, begun under the Bush administration, that Cuba considers subversive and illegal.

U.S. officials say Gross was providing computers and cell phones to Cuba’s small Jewish community to help it communicate with the outside world, and that his activities were not a crime.

At a press event with Costa Rican Foreign Minister Rene Castro, Clinton expressed hope the trial leads to Gross’s early release and return home.

“We also, as you know, are deeply concerned about our American citizen, Alan Gross. He’s been unjustly jailed for far too long. We call on the government of Cuba to release him, and unconditionally allow him to leave Cuba and return to his family, to bring an end to their long ordeal. It is a matter of great personal pain to his family and concern to the United States government, so we’re going to hope that he will be also reunited soon.”

Foreign reporters were barred from the opening trial session, but Gross’s wife and consular officials from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana reportedly were allowed in.

The two countries have not had formal diplomatic relations since 1961, but have interested sections in their respective capitals, and have held talks in recent months on such issues as immigration and postal links.

Clinton and her Costa Rican counterpart discussed regional issues, including efforts to combat drug trafficking, and a bitter dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over the course of a river that forms part of their border.

Costa Rica claims Nicaraguan forces crossed into its territory last year during dredging operations in the San Juan river, while Nicaragua accuses its neighbor of “inventing” a border conflict.

The International Court of Justice is expected to make a ruling on the dispute soon, and Clinton said the United States wants to see a peaceful resolution “in accordance with long-established agreements.”