May 20, 2013 / 5:20 PM / 6 years ago

Steaua Bucharest owner jailed in Romania for abuse of power

Romanian lawmaker and soccer club owner George "Gigi" Becali is seen in Bucharest April 17, 2012. REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - George Becali, a Romanian MP and owner of the soccer club Steaua Bucharest, was jailed for three years on Monday for abuse of power, one of only a handful of big names to be convicted in a country trying to show it can beat high-level corruption.

The European Union, which Romania joined in 2007, has its justice system under special monitoring and has repeatedly urged it to get tough on officials suspected of abuse.

Becali, 54, was convicted by Romania’s highest court along with two former Defence Ministry officials, whom prosecutors accused of handing him 30 hectares of farmland that belonged to the state, costing the government about $900,000.

Police stopped Becali on Sunday night as he tried to fly out of an airport near the capital. Becali, a staunchly religious man, said he had planned a brief visit to Israel to pray for a favorable court ruling.

The flamboyant former shepherd, who has angered rights groups with his outspoken opposition to greater gay and minority rights, won a seat in parliament for the ruling leftist alliance in December, and sat on the house’s judicial commission.

He resigned from the alliance earlier this year but remained in the house as an independent. In February, he received a suspended three-year prison sentence for illegally detaining three people.

Former prime minister Adrian Nastase was recently released from a prison term for corruption, but many of the other officials convicted in recent years have received suspended sentences or remain free pending a long appeal process.

The former ministry officials jailed with Becali each received a two-year sentence, and all three were ordered to pay damages and accumulated interest.

Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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