NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo was sentenced to five years, 10 months in prison on Thursday after admitting to taking $2.5 million in bribes from Taiwan and laundering funds through U.S. banks.
The sentence, delivered by U.S. District Judge Robert Patterson in New York, ensures the fallen leader will remain incarcerated beyond the more than four years his lawyers said he has already served since his arrest in 2010.
Portillo, 62, served as president of Guatemala from 2000 to 2004. He was extradited to the United States in May 2013 after a years-long fight and after Guatemalan courts had cleared him on local embezzlement charges.
At a hearing in New York that drew a crowd of Portillo’s political supporters and family, Patterson also ordered him to forfeit $2.5 million. Patterson said Portillo had abused his position in committing his crimes.
“The case has importance in how we treat violations of laws against corruption,” Patterson said.
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 Guatemala.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez made a brief statement after the news, saying the government would see whether the sentence would be cut for the time Portillo had already spent in custody.
“I understand the defense will try to reduce the stay in prison to 11 months, but we’ll have to wait for the judge’s decision,” he told reporters in the north of Guatemala.
In March, Portillo pleaded guilty to a charge of money laundering conspiracy. But he said the $2.5 million was actually a bribe from Taiwan in exchange for Guatemala’s continued diplomatic recognition.
China says Taiwan has no right to recognition as it is part of China. The two have been governed separately since 1949.
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.
Adam Fee, an assistant U.S. attorney, said in court that Portillo had “put a dollar value on his country’s diplomacy.”
Portillo, dressed in a dark suit and a purple tie, asked Patterson “for your forgiveness for my actions, for my mistakes, and for my crime.”
In a lengthy speech, Portillo highlighted financial, tax and education reforms he instituted in Guatemala, as well as higher wages.
“All men make mistakes as well as achievements in life,” he said. “At the end of a man’s life what matters is how the good deeds balance against the bad.”
Lawyers for Portillo have in court papers said he was far from the only Guatemalan or Central American leader to receive gifts or bribes from Taiwan.
The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office said Thursday current Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou rejects “checkbook diplomacy.”
It was unclear how much more time Portillo would spend in prison, or where he would be incarcerated. David Rosenfield, Portillo’s lawyer, said he would seek credit for the 4-1/3 years he has served since January 2010 and ask to have his client transferred to Guatemala.
Reporting by Nate Raymond; Additional reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Andrew Hay and Tom Brown