February 26, 2015 / 5:53 AM / in 3 years

Guatemalan ex-president returns home after release from U.S. prison

(Reuters) - Former President Alfonso Portillo returned to Guatemala on Wednesday following his release from a U.S. prison, nearly six-years after his arrest on money laundering charges.

Supporters of former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo pray during a mass in the San Agustin church in Guatemala City, February 24, 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

The 63-year-old, who served as president from 2000 to 2004, struck a repentant note on his arrival at Guatemala City’s international airport, and expressed interest in becoming politically active once more.

“I return as the prodigal son who made a mistake and I recognize it,” Portillo said. “My dream is to create a democratic front with various sectors and make a proposal to the country.”

Portillo was sentenced to five years and 10 months in prison by a New York court last May, for taking $2.5 million in bribes from Taiwan and laundering funds through U.S. banks. But at the time, he had already spent more than four years in jail since his arrest in 2010, which allowed him to slash his jail time in the United States.

He had been incarcerated in Guatemala in 2010. But the country’s courts cleared him of embezzlement charges in May 2011. The former leader remained in prison, however, until the country’s Supreme Court decided to endorse a longstanding request by the United States that Portillo face money-laundering charges. He was extradited to the United States in May 2013.

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 the Central American nation for books for school libraries.

Portillo pleaded guilty to a charge of money laundering conspiracy last March. He said Taiwan had paid the $2.5 million as a bribe in exchange for Guatemala’s continued diplomatic recognition.

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.

China maintains that Taiwan should not be recognized as an independent country because it is part of China. The two have been governed separately since the Communists won China’s civil war in 1949. The Nationalists fled across a 110-mile-wide (180-km) strait to Taiwan.

Reporting By Brendan Pierson and Joseph Ax, and by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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