Thursday, May 23, 2013

Canadian goes on trial in Havana for corruption scandal

Posted on Thursday, 05.23.13

Canadian goes on trial in Havana for corruption scandal
By Julian Sher, Toronto Star And Juan O. Tamayo

When Sarkis Yacoubian walks into a court room in downtown Havana
Thursday to face corruption charges that could send him to prison for 12
years the Canadian businessman will have a high-powered diplomat keeping
a close eye on his trial — Canada's ambassador to Cuba.

As the Toronto Star revealed last week, Yacoubian, who ran a $30 million
transport and trading company called Tri-Star Caribbean, was indicted by
Cuban prosecutors in April on three counts of bribery, tax evasion and
"activities damaging to the economy."

After almost two years in custody without charges, Yacoubian's fate will
be decided by a panel of five judges in a trial that is expected to last
no longer than two days.

In an apparent signal about just how seriously Ottawa views the case,
the Department of Foreign Affairs this week informed Yacoubian's lawyers
in Canada that Ambassador Matthew Levin — who had visited Yacoubian at
least four times while he was in La Condesa prison on the outskirts of
Havana — will attend both days of the trial at the Havana Criminal
Court, along with the Consul General at the embassy.

"It is very rare for the ambassador to show up in a court room," said
Gar Pardy, a former director general of consular services for Canada.
"It sends a message to the Cuban authorities: this is a case of direct
interest to the government of Canada."

Yacoubian was arrested in July 2011 as part of Cuban Communist Party's
highly-charged political campaign against corruption. A second Canadian,
Cy Tokmakjian, who runs a rival transportation firm, was arrested in
September 2011 and remains in jail with no specific charges filed
against him.

Yacoubian told the Star in a series of lengthy jailhouse phone
interviews that he confessed and cooperated closely with his Cuban
interrogators, pointing the finger at what he called the "bigger crooks"
— a wide network of foreign companies engaged in widespread corruption
and bribery.

Yacoubian said he had hoped that his close cooperation with the Cubans
in exposing the web of corruption would help his case. "I was expecting
any time these things will clear up," he said.

But after nearly two years in detention, it has not happened.

"They expect me in court to say I am sorry and I will say that," he
said. "But I'm not going to lay quietly and be the victim."

His family says Yacoubian now plans to plead guilty only to the lesser
charge of bribery, which carries a five-year sentence, and not the more
serious counts of tax evasion and damage to the economy that could bring
seven and 12-year jail terms.

"Sarkis is ready for anything," said Krikor Yacoubian who has been in
almost daily contact by phone with his brother. "Sarkis is a guinea pig.
His trial will be a test of how Canada is going to react."

Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Emma Welford told the Star
that Ottawa will not comment on the case "to protect the privacy of the
individual concerned."

Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American
Studies at the University of Miami, said the government controls the
judicial system, "so you are at the mercy of a very horrible political

Yacoubian's case was investigated by the powerful Agency for
Investigating Crimes against the Security of the State.

Prosecutors allege Yacoubian or his employees bribed Cuban officials
from a vast array of government departments — from the Ministries of
Construction, Transportation and Tourism to the government's
telecommunications monopoly — for advance information on government
purchases or to favor Tri-Star.

Krikor Yacoubian says his brother will plead guilty to the charges of
bribery, even though Sarkis insists he never initiated any payments but
was forced to give money to Cuban officials to keep contracts he had
already legitimately won.

"Sarkis never introduced payments in anyway," said Krikor Yacoubian. "He
had to pay." But he says his brother will "vehemently deny" the other
charges, which carry the heaviest sentences.

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