February 25, 2015 / 7:50 PM / 5 years ago

Guatemalan ex-president who took bribe released from U.S. prison

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

(Reuters) - Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo has been released from a U.S. prison after serving a nearly six-year sentence for taking $2.5 million in bribes from Taiwan and laundering funds through U.S. banks, a prison official confirmed Wednesday.

Portillo was sentenced to five years, 10 months in prison by U.S. District Judge Robert Patterson in New York last May. At the time, he had already served more than four years in jail since his arrest in 2010.

He is expected to arrive in Guatemala later on Wednesday.

The 63-year-old, who served as president of Guatemala from 2000 to 2004, was extradited to the United States in May 2013 after a years-long fight in Guatemala’s courts, which had cleared the former president on embezzlement charges.

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.

Last March, Portillo pleaded guilty to a charge of money laundering conspiracy. But he claimed the $2.5 million was actually a bribe from Taiwan in exchange for Guatemala’s continued diplomatic recognition.

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.

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.

Reporting By Brendan Pierson and Joseph Ax

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