May 25, 2013 / 1:52 AM / in 4 years

Corruption trial of Canadian trader ends in Cuba, with verdict soon

HAVANA (Reuters) - The trial of a Canadian businessman who bribed Cuban officials ended on Friday after two days of testimony, but there was no word on the outcome in a case closely watched by Havana’s foreign business community.

Men arrive at a court during the trial against Sarkis Yacoubian and Krikor Bayassalian in Havana May 23, 2013. The trial of Yacoubian, 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 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. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa (CUBA - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)

Sarkis Yacoubian, originally from Armenia and the owner of import firm Tri-Star Caribbean, was expected to plead guilty and hope for leniency for his cooperation with investigators after his July 2011 arrest.

The five-judge panel was expected to announce its verdict within 10 days.

Yacoubian, 53, faced up to 12 years in prison on charges of bribery, tax evasion and damaging the country’s economy. He has been in prison since his arrest.

His associate, Lebanese citizen Krikor Bayassalian, was a co-defendant at the trial.

At least three other Canadian and British executives with import businesses, all arrested after Yacoubian, are behind bars and expected to go on trial soon.

The cases are the result of a corruption crackdown launched by President Raul Castro shortly after he succeeded his ailing brother Fidel in 2008.

They have drawn the attention of those involved in foreign trade in Cuba because in the past foreign business people suspected of corruption were deported, not imprisoned.

Their prosecution is seen as a measure of President Castro’s determination to end a practice he views as a threat to Cuba’s socialist system.

Canada’s ambassador to Cuba, Matthew Levin, attended the trial but did not speak to reporters. Journalists were not allowed to cover the proceedings.

Yacoubian’s lawyers and family also had no immediate comment.

Cuba’s state-run media has not yet reported the Yacoubian trial, nor mentioned the arrests and crackdown on foreign trade.

Castro said earlier this year he would speak about corruption at a National Assembly meeting in July.

Soon after taking over for Fidel, he established the comptroller general’s office and gave it a seat on the ruling Council of State, even as he began implementing market-oriented economic reforms.

That step marked the start of the anti-corruption campaign that uncovered high-level graft in key sectors ranging from the cigar, nickel and communications industries to food processing and civil aviation.

The foreign trade business, which manages billions of dollars in purchases annually and is controlled by a handful of state firms, is perhaps the most vulnerable to corruption, foreign and Cuban businessmen say.

There is no open bidding in Cuba’s international trade operations and state purchasers who handle multimillion-dollar contracts earn just $50 to $100 per month.

Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Jeff Franks and Philip Barbara

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