HAVANA - Prosecutors are charging jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross with "acts against the integrity and independence" of Cuba and requesting a 20-year prison term, state news media reported Friday, dimming hopes he would be allowed to go home soon.
Gross, 60, a Maryland native, has been jailed without charges since December 2009 on suspicion of spying.
The U.S. government and his family say Gross was distributing communications equipment to Cuba's Jewish community. They have long called for him to be released, or at least brought to trial.
The state-controlled website Cubadebate said that a trial date would be set shortly and that Gross' family, his lawyer, and U.S. consular representatives would be allowed to attend. It said prosecutors were requesting a 20-year prison term "following an exhaustive investigation."
The United States denounced the decision and said Gross should be freed immediately.
Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which Washington maintains instead of an embassy, said his "imprisonment without charges for more than a year is contrary to all international human-rights obligations."
Peter J. Kahn, Gross' U.S.-based lawyer, said it was "a positive development" that the case was finally moving forward. The stiff charges show Gross is a pawn "caught in the middle of a long-standing political dispute" between Cuba and the United States, he said.
"We respectfully urge the Cuban authorities to free Alan immediately for time served," Kahn said in a statement, adding that he hoped U.S. and Cuban officials could resolve the matter through diplomatic channels.
Gross' wife, Judy, has appealed for his release on humanitarian grounds, saying that he had lost 90 pounds while in custody and that she was shocked by his appearance when she visited him last summer. Their oldest daughter has been diagnosed with breast cancer since her father was detained.
The decision to seek such a long prison term is certain to be a major setback for U.S.-Cuban relations.
U.S. officials have said repeatedly that any meaningful progress on core issues such as the 48-year-old trade embargo would be impossible while Gross remained in custody.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration said it was easing travel restrictions put on Cuba under the embargo. Days later, Cuba allowed visiting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobsen to meet with Gross behind bars.