SOFIA (Reuters) - A Bulgarian court sentenced three men, including a six-time European sumo champion, to life in prison on Thursday for membership of an organized crime gang that carried out contract killings.
The European Union's poorest member has been repeatedly criticized by Brussels for doing too little to fight widespread corruption and organized crime which still blight the Balkan country 20 years after the end of Communist rule.
Bulgaria's failure to tackle corruption and crime has deterred investors, hindered growth and delayed its entry into the EU's Schengen zone of borderless travel.
Petar Stoyanov, who became head of the Bulgarian sumo federation after retiring from competition, Vasil Kostov and Georgi Valev were found guilty of aiding and abetting the murder of three businessmen in 2008 and 2009, as well as beatings, arson and usury.
Another three men from the same gang, nicknamed "The Killers", received jail terms ranging from four to 17 years, the head of the regional court in the northeastern town of Shumen said. The six were arrested in 2010.
The court said Stoyanov, who weighed 160 kg during his competition days, Kostov and Valev will not be eligible for parole. The verdict can be appealed within 15 days however.
Stoyanov, 36, also known as The Chieftain, is a close friend to Bulgaria's best sumo wrestler Kotooshu - the first European sumo wrestler to win the prestigious Emperor's Cup.
The verdict against Stoyanov is another blow to Japan's ancient sport which is already struggling with declining popularity after recent scandals, involving drug use, bout-fixing, violence and alleged links to organized crime.
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Jon Hemming)