HAVANA (Reuters) - The trial of a Canadian businessman who has confessed to bribing Cuban officials began on Thursday, almost two years after his arrest in a sweeping government crackdown on corruption.
The closed trial of 53-year-old Sarkis Yacoubian, originally from Armenia and the owner of import firm Tri-Star Caribbean, was expected to last two days. An associate of Yacoubian, Lebanese citizen Krikor Bayassalian, is a co-defendant.
The two men were brought into the courthouse, once a large home in Havana’s 10th of October neighborhood, out of sight of the press, which was not allowed in to cover the proceedings.
Canada’s ambassador to Cuba, Matthew Levin, did not speak to reporters as he walked in the front gate.
The corruption trials of at least three other Canadian and British executives who were arrested shortly after Yacoubian was taken into custody in July 2011 are expected to follow.
The arrests were unprecedented for Cuba, where foreign businessmen suspected of corruption are usually deported, and are viewed as a measure of President Raul Castro’s determination to clean up a vice he views as a threat to Cuba’s socialist system.
They sent shockwaves through Cuba’s small foreign business community where the companies involved were among the most visible players.
Cuba’s state-run media, however, has not yet reported the Yacoubian trial, nor mentioned the arrests and crackdown on foreign trade.
After his arrest, Yacoubian quickly cooperated with prosecutors, confessing to bribery and implicating other foreign firms, which sparked an investigation into the communist-run country’s import business.
Within months, dozens of Cuban officials and state purchasers were behind bars.
“I tried to explain to them (investigators) systematically how things could be done,” Yacoubian told the Toronto Star last week in his only interview from jail.
“I gave them drawings, designs. I gave them names, people, how they do it, why, when, where, what,” he said.
Yacoubian was expected to plead guilty to bribery, tax evasion and other crimes and could face a sentence of up to 12 years behind bars, the newspaper said. Bayassalian faces the same charges.
In September 2011, two months after Tri-Star Caribbean was shuttered, Canada-based Tokmakjian Group, one of the most important Western trading firms in Cuba, was closed and its 73-year-old head, Cy Tokmakjian, also originally from Armenia and a Canadian citizen, was taken into custody.
Yacoubian had worked for Tokmakjian before founding Tri-Star to compete with his former employer in what became a bitter rivalry for Cuba’s automobile, motorized and heavy equipment market.
In October 2011, police also closed the Havana offices of the British investment and trading firm Coral Capital Group Ltd and arrested chief executive Amado Fakhre, a Lebanese-born British citizen.
Two months later police raided the offices of the powerful military-run Tecnotex trading company, taking its Cuban chief executive Fernando Noy away in handcuffs.
Coral Capital’s chief operating officer, Stephen Purvis, was arrested in March 2012. Purvis is a British citizen.
A number of other foreigners and Cubans who worked for the companies remain free but cannot leave the island because they are considered witnesses in the cases.
Cuban officials and lawyers for the defendants could not be reached for comment.
Soon after taking over for his ailing brother, Fidel, in 2008, President 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 that uncovered high-level graft in several main areas, from the cigar, nickel and communications industries, to food processing and civil aviation.
But foreign and Cuban businessmen say the foreign trade sector, which manages billions in purchases annually and is monopolized by a handful of state firms, is perhaps the most vulnerable to corruption.
There is no open bidding in Cuba’s international trade sector and state purchasers who handle multimillion-dollar contracts earn just $50 to $100 per month.
“You have people who do not make enough money to care for their families handing huge contracts. What do you expect?” a local state administration specialist said on condition of anonymity.
“The trial, like the arrests, is aimed more at scaring Cubans then foreigners, but will prove only symbolic if the surrounding conditions do not change,” he said.
Transparency International, considered the world’s leading anti-graft watchdog, last rated 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.
A video, shown to high-level Communist Party cadres in early 2012, featured Yacoubian’s confession, according to sources familiar with the film.
Called “Metastasis,” it opened with footage of Raul Castro warning that corruption must be kept at one’s ankles and never be allowed to rise above one’s nose. It closed with Castro characterizing corruption as a threat to national security.
In the video, Yacoubian confessed to passing packets of money to Cuban officials visiting Canada when he worked for the Tokmakjian Group, then continuing the same practice after he founded Tri-Star Caribbean.
The video also featured the confessions of the top Cuban employees of the Canadian firms, a deputy minister of basic industry and others.
The video reportedly portrayed Tokmakjian as the original so-called cancer cell, with payoffs and bribes “spreading like cancer” into high levels of the Cuban government.
Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Jeff Franks, David Adams and Jackie Frank