Alan Gross
This 2005 photo of the Gross family, Alan and Judy Gross are seen in Jerusalem. Published on Feb. 4, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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HAVANA - A Cuban court yesterday found U.S. contractor Alan Gross guilty of crimes against the state and sentenced him to 15 years in prison, a verdict that is sure to have sweeping repercussions for already-sour relations between Washington and Havana.

The court said prosecutors had proved their case that Gross, 61, was working on a subversive program, paid for by the United States, that aimed to bring down Cuba's revolutionary system. Prosecutors had sought a 20-year sentence.

The Maryland native was arrested in December 2009 while on a USAID backed democracy-building project. The U.S. government and Gross's family say he was working to improve Internet access for the island's Jewish community and should be released.

Cuban officials have called him a mercenary and maintained his motives were more nefarious. The court said the program that Gross worked on - part of a $20 million Washington effort to support democracy on the island - showed that the U.S. government continues to seek the government's overthrow.

The court found that "evidence demonstrated the participation of the North American contractor in a subversive project of the U.S. government that aimed to destroy the revolution through the use of communications systems out of the control of authorities," according to a statement read out on the afternoon news.

Bethesda, Maryland-based Development Alternatives Inc., or DAI, was awarded a multimillion-dollar contract for the program in which Gross was involved, and Gross received more than a half million dollars through his company, despite the fact he spoke little Spanish and had no history of working in Cuba.Several Cuba experts have said Havana hoped to use Gross's case to shine a light on the democracy-building programs. Now that he has been convicted, they argue, Cuba has no strategic reason to keep him in prison much longer.

However, such a process could take weeks or months to play out, if it happens at all. In the meantime, the conviction is sure to plunge relations to a new low. U.S. officials have said repeatedly that no rapprochement is possible while Gross remains jailed.

There was no immediate reaction to the verdict from Washington or Gross's family.