U.S. Court Sentences Ex-Ukraine Prime Minister to Prison for Extortion

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko was sentenced Friday in federal court to nine years imprisonment and $10 million in fines for money laundering, wire fraud and extortion.

The sentence was half of the maximum sought by prosecutors, who said the 53-year-old former premier misused his 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.

A jury in U.S. District Court convicted him in June 2004 and he 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 pushed for a four-year sentence, said the prosecution was politically motivated and that political foes withheld evidence that could have exonerated him.

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 tried 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 in San Francisco.

Lazarenko has appealed his conviction.

In March, he was elected to a regional parliament office in Dnepropetrovsk.

The case is United States v. Lazarenko, 00-0248.