Britons freed, Canadian jailed for 9 years in Cuban graft cases

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 20, 2013 1:09 PM

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - Two British businessmen were released from custody in Cuba this week but a Canadian remained behind bars after courts delivered verdicts in two high-profile corruption trials, sources close to the cases said on Thursday.

Amado Fakhre and Stephen Purvis, the top executives of British investment and trading firm Coral Capital Group Ltd, were found guilty of minor charges and released for time served, according to the sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But Canadian businessman Sarkis Yacoubian, originally from Armenia and the owner of import firm Tri-Star Caribbean, and his cousin and associate, Lebanese citizen Krikor Bayassalian, were found guilty of bribery and other related charges.

Yacoubian, who provided evidence to the government after he was arrested and his company closed two years ago, was sentenced to nine years in prison. Bayassalian received a four-year prison term.

The four were tried in two separate cases last month.

Yacoubian, who along with Bayassalian is being held in a Cuban jail, plans to waive his right to an appeal and hopes to be transferred to Canada, his relatives told the Canadian Press news agency.

The Cuban government and the defendants' attorneys and family were not immediately available for comment.

Fakhre, who was born in Lebanon, was arrested in October 2011 when the company's offices were raided and closed and recently had been held in a Cuban hospital. Purvis had been behind bars since March 2012.

The sources said Purvis was free to leave the country, while Fakhre's status was unclear.

A trial date has yet to be set for the owner of another Canadian trading company, Cy Tokmakjian, who was taken into custody when his firm, the Tokmakjian Group, was raided and closed in September 2011.

The arrests of the foreign businessmen, part of a broad government campaign to stamp out corruption, sent shockwaves through Cuba's foreign business community where the companies were among the most visible players.

Until then, expulsions rather than imprisonment had been the norm for those accused of corrupt practices.

Dozens of Cuban state purchasers and officials, including deputy ministers, have been arrested and convicted as part of the government's investigation into the Cuban imports business.

Soon after taking over for his ailing brother Fidel in 2008, President Raul Castro established the comptroller general's office with a seat on the ruling Council of State, even as he began implementing market-oriented economic reforms.

The measure marked the start of the anti-corruption campaign. Since then, high-level graft has been uncovered in several key areas, from the cigar, nickel and communications industries, to food processing and civil aviation.

The Cuban government has been less successful, however, in tackling low salaries and lack of transparency, which contribute to the problem, according to foreign diplomats and businessmen.

There is no open bidding in Cuba's import-export sector and state purchasers who handle multimillion-dollar contracts earn anywhere from $50 to $100 per month.

Cuban officials blame U.S. sanctions for the lack of open bidding, accusing Washington of trying to scare off any foreign company interested in doing business with the Communist-ruled nation.

Transparency International, considered the world's leading anti-graft watchdog, rates Cuba 58 out of 178 countries in terms of tackling corruption, ahead of all but eight of 33 nations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Tom Brown and Paul Simao)