HAVANA (Reuters) - A Cuban court has sentenced Canadian executive Cy Tokmakjian to 15 years in prison for bribery and other economic charges in a case his company and Western diplomats have called a chilling development for potential foreign investors.
Two of his aides from the Tokmakjian Group received sentences of 12 and 8 years, and Cuba seized about $100 million worth of the company’s assets, the Ontario-based transportation firm said in a statement.
The Tokmakjian Group, which did an estimated $80 million in business annually with Cuba until it was shuttered in September 2011, called the case a “show trial” and a “travesty of justice.”
Fourteen Cubans were also charged. The result of their cases was unknown. Cuba has yet to comment on the verdict or sentencing. “Lack of due process doesn’t begin to describe the travesty of justice that is being suffered by foreign businessmen in Cuba,” the company statement said. The Tokmakjian Group was one of the more successful foreign companies in Cuba, mainly selling transportation, mining and construction equipment.
Then it was suddenly caught up in an investigation of Cuba’s international trading sector as part of a crackdown on corruption by President Raul Castro.
The case also strained Cuba’s relationship with Canada, and the company has pressed the Canadian government to ask Cuba for the release of the three executives. Western diplomats have called into question the charges, saying the evidence was weak, and said it would dissuade foreign investors at a time Cuba is actively seeking partners from abroad to do business on the communist-ruled island.
Lead defendant Cy Tokmakjian, 74, the company’s founder and president, has been jailed for more than three years on charges that include bribery, fraud, tax evasion, and falsifying bank documents.
Fellow Canadians Claudio Vetere and Marco Puche were sentenced to 12 and 8 years each, respectively, said Lee Hacker, the company’s spokesman and vice president for finance. They have been out of jail in Havana, their passports seized.
The Tokmakjian Group has already started fighting the charges by filing claims worth more than $200 million against Cuba through the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris and in Canada through the Ontario Superior Court.
“I wouldn’t recommend anyone go to Cuba to invest,” Hacker said. “As we said all along, we were expecting this. Everything was predetermined.”
Cuba has been touting a new foreign investment law that took effect this year, part of an overt campaign to attract foreign direct investment that is crucially needed for development.
The main feature of the law is to lower taxes. But many foreign companies have said they are more interested in the general business climate, transparency and the rule of law, especially in light of this case. The 14 Cuban defendants included Nelson Labrada, the former deputy minister of the defunct Sugar Ministry, and Ernesto Gomez, former director of the state nickel company, Ferroniquel Minera S.A.
Prosecutors were seeking a 20-year sentence for Labrada and terms of 8 to 12 years for the other Cubans.
Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Dan Grebler