Former Ukraine Prime Minister Facing Prison For Extortion

SAN FRANCISCO, USA -- More than two years after being convicted of money laundering, wire fraud and extortion, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko faced sentencing before a U.S. judge Friday, and prosecutors are seeking the maximum term.

In arguing for an 18-year sentence, authorities say the 53-year-old former premier misused his high office in the former Soviet republic to get rich through a series of business schemes. He was the first former head of government to be tried in the United States since Manuel Noriega of Panama.

"The defendant's conduct was egregious, he misused his office to generate tens of millions for himself at the expense of the Ukrainian people and then sought to avail himself of our banking system to safeguard his criminal proceeds," federal prosecutor Peter Axelrod argued in court papers.

In addition to prison time, authorities seek more than $66 million in fines and restitution.

Prosecutors also urged U.S. District Judge Martin Jenkins to impose the maximum sentence, so Lazarenko couldn't again exploit Ukrainian citizens. In March, Lazarenko was elected to a regional parliament office in Dnepropetrovsk.

A 12-member U.S. jury in San Francisco convicted him in June 2004.

Lazarenko has since remained under house arrest at an undisclosed location on $86 million bail.

Lazarenko denied he siphoned funds or accepted bribes in exchange for government contracts and favors, claiming his multimillion dollar fortune was earned legitimately at a time his country, emerging from the Soviet Union's collapse, had a new and lawless free-market economy.

Defense attorneys, who are pushing for a four-year sentence for their client, also said the prosecution was politically motivated and that political foes withheld evidence that could have exonerated him.

Doron Weinberg, one of Lazarenko's three attorneys, labeled the government's sentencing recommendation as "Draconian."

"This is the only implication that can be drawn," Weinberg said.

Lazarenko sought political asylum in the U.S. in 1999 during his country's presidential election campaign, claiming he had faced three assassination attempts.

Instead the U.S. government arrested him and said it decided to try him to prevent criminals from using the United States as a safe haven for dirty money.

According to the U.S. government, Lazarenko used his political clout to set up an international underground network of bank accounts to launder profits made through clandestine schemes involving natural gas, agribusiness, housing and other businesses in Ukraine. Authorities claimed $114 million was directed to banks in the U.S., mostly institutions in San Francisco.

Before trial, Jenkins had said the government must prove Lazarenko violated both U.S. and Ukrainian law.

Lazarenko has appealed his conviction.

Source: AP