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Cuba won't seek American's death

A Cuban prosecutor Thursday dropped a demand for the death penalty and called for a 20-year jail term for a U.S. citizen on trial for "promoting armed action" against Cuba.

Havana's provincial court wound up the trial of Walter Van Der Veer in six hours and was to issue its verdict later.

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana, making an unusual public statement, sharply criticized the trial and procedure leading up to it, reiterating Washington's criticism of the Communist nation's legal system.

U.S. lawyer Dominic Salfi, who was allowed to attend Van Der Veer's trial as an observer, said that the panel of five judges was considering the evidence and would hand down a verdict in writing. Salfi did not know when this would be.

Salfi said the court was unlikely to exceed the prosecution's demand in handing down a sentence, and added that he would be contacting Van Der Veer's wife in Florida to inform her that her husband probably had been spared the death penalty.

Salfi, who described Van Der Veer as looking very thin, said the American maintained his innocence in court.

The lawyer added that if Van Der Veer were convicted he would seek an appeal, but for the moment he was thankful that "he's not going to be shot."

Cuba allowed the U.S. lawyer to attend the trial but not to act as defense lawyer for Van Der Veer, 52, who was arrested in Havana in August 1996.

In its preliminary conclusions ahead of a trial, the prosecution called for the death penalty, charging Van Der Veer with seeking to overthrow the Cuban government and in particular, Castro.

It accused him of smuggling in a small selection of U.S. military gear such as uniforms and hats, and of printing anti-Castro leaflets and throwing them out of car windows in Havana on two occasions last year. It also said he tried unsuccessfully to obtain guns and grenades and planned a series of attacks against state installations.

The prosecution charged that Van Der Veer was working for the Cuban Liberation Front, a radical anti-Castro exile group in Miami.

Ahead of the trial, U.S. authorities expressed concern over the case to the Cuban government on the grounds that the charges and penalty sought were out of proportion to any crime Van Der Veer allegedly committed.

Van Der Veer's government-assigned lawyer, in what Salfi called an "impassioned" closing argument, said her client fell well short of violent action.

Were the court to rule that Van Der Veer was guilty only of distributing enemy propaganda, he could get a jail sentence of one to eight years. The charge of "promotion of armed action" that he faces carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years in jail or the death penalty.

56 killed in crash

HAVANA _ Fifty-six people were killed and eight were injured Thursday when a passenger train slammed into a bus at a crossing in eastern Cuba, the state news agency AIN said.

AIN said the crash occurred near the town of San German, some 450 miles southeast of Havana, when a 12-car passenger train traveling from Havana to the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba struck the bus, whose driver had disobeyed a stop signal at the crossing.

The death toll matched that of Cuba's worst train crash to date, an accident in 1991 when a passenger train derailed in central Villa Clara province, killing 56 people.