Ex-Guatemalan leader gets nearly 6 years prison for bribe plea

by Reuters
Thursday, 22 May 2014 19:40 GMT

Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo arrives to sign the attendance book, in the Supreme Court of Justice in Guatemala City, September 3, 2012. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

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(Adds sentencing details, background)

By Nate Raymond

NEW YORK, May 22 (Reuters) - Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo was sentenced to five years, 10 months in prison on Thursday after admitting to taking $2.5 million in bribes from Taiwan and laundering funds through U.S. banks.

The sentence, delivered by U.S. District Judge Robert Patterson in New York, ensures the fallen leader will remain incarcerated beyond the more than four years his lawyers said he has already served following his arrest in 2010.

Portillo, 62, served as president of Guatemala from 2000 to 2004. He was extradited to the United States in May 2013 after a years-long fight and after Guatemalan courts had cleared him on local embezzlement charges.

At a hearing in New York that drew a crowd of Portillo's political supporters and family, Patterson also ordered him to forfeit $2.5 million. Patterson said Portillo had abused his position in committing his crimes.

"The case has importance in how we treat violations of laws against corrion and the impact on this country and in terms of what role we're going to play," Patterson said.

U.S. authorities initially accused Portillo of laundering tens of millions of dollars embezzled from the Guatemalan government, including $2.5 million provided by Taiwan's embassy in Guatemala.

In March, Portillo pleaded guilty to a charge of money laundering conspiracy. But he said the $2.5 million was actually a bribe from Taiwan in exchange for Guatemala's continued diplomatic recognition.

China says Taiwan has no right to recognition as it is part of China. The two have been governed separately since the Communists won China's civil war in 1949.

Only 22 countries maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan, including the tiny Pacific island states of Nauru and Palau, as well as Vatican City, Paraguay, Panama, Haiti, Nicaragua and Belize.

Lawyers for Portillo have in court papers said he was far from the only Guatemalan or Central American leader to receive gifts or bribes from Taiwan.

The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office said Thursday current Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou rejects "checkbook diplomacy."

Portillo's lawyers had urged the judge to consider Portillo's contributions to Guatemala.

"I'm convinced, your honor, that God and history will know whether I was a good or a bad man during my time on this earth," Portillo said in court Thursday. (Reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrew Hay)

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