Moldovan businessman jailed for role in $1 billion bank fraud

CHISINAU, April 20 (Reuters) - A Moldovan court sentenced businessman Veaceslav Platon to 18 years in prison on Thursday for money-laundering and fraud linked to the disappearance of $1 billion from Moldova’s banking system.

Known locally as the “theft of the century”, the scandal saw the equivalent of an eighth of the impoverished former Soviet republic’s gross domestic product stolen from three of its largest banks between 2012-2014.

An investigation into the banking fraud has identified around 40 people who either benefited from the scheme or facilitated it, but most of them have yet to be publicly named.

The court found Platon guilty of embezzling some of the money that disappeared - around 800 million lei ($42 million) - from lender Banca de Economii, which subsequently went bankrupt.

According to the judge’s ruling, he must repay the money and serve 18 years in prison.

Platon, who maintains his innocence, said he was the victim of a witch-hunt.

“Look into my eyes, gentlemen judges. Are you not ashamed? This is not a verdict, it’s a political show trial,” he said after the sentence was read out.

A former prime minister, Vlad Filat, has also been jailed in connection with the scam, in which money was siphoned overseas over years through dodgy loans, asset swaps and shareholder deals.

The scandal triggered street protests, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union froze aid, the leu currency plunged to record lows and inflation climbed into double digits.

Many Moldovans believe other members of the pro-EU elite apart from Filat were also involved, or at least complicit, in the scheme.

Platon was detained in July 2016 and is separately suspected of involvement in a Russian-led money laundering operation that funnelled around $22 billion of Russian money through the Moldovan financial system between 2011-2014. He also denies any wrongdoing in that case.

He was denied the right to attend much of the trial because of alleged bad behaviour that included insulting the judges.

His lawyer, Eduard Rudenko, said this and other restrictions imposed on the defence amounted to a violation of his constitutional rights. ($1 = 19.2200 Moldovan lei) (Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Gareth Jones)