Arafat moneyman gets 15 years for corruption

The Palestinian anti-corruption court on Thursday convicted the fugitive moneyman of the late leader Yasser Arafat of siphoning off millions of dollars in public funds, sentencing him to 15 years in prison.

The court, concluding its highest-profile probe, found Mohammed Rashid guilty of embezzlement and money laundering. In addition to the prison sentence, he was also fined $15 million and his properties were ordered confiscated.

He and two associates were convicted of taking a total of $33.5 million from the foreign donor-financed Palestinian Investment Fund.

Rashid, who in the past has denied wrongdoing, was sentenced in absentia by the court in the West Bank city of Ramallah. He left the Palestinian territories after Arafat's death in November 2004 and has rarely been seen since. He is said to hold business interests in four Middle Eastern countries and Montenegro.

The Palestinian Authority has asked those countries to freeze his assets and extradite him. "Without doubt the money of the Palestinian people will return to the people, sooner or later," promised Rafik Natche, head of the Palestinian anti-corruption commission, after the conviction.

Anti-corruption campaigners lauded the case as a sign of the maturing of the Palestinian political system, although the probe also appeared to be tinged with political intrigue. Rashid made veiled threats several months ago to disclose purported secrets about the rise to power of Arafat's successor, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian watchdogs, while praising growing government vigilance about corruption, expressed concern that investigations are at times being used selectively to settle personal scores.

It is not clear why Arafat put the shadowy Rashid, a former journalist with no business training, in charge of most of his finances.

Although Arafat was known for a frugal lifestyle, he used large amounts of money to buy loyalty and did not crack down on the corrupt practices of his closest aides. The first decade of the Palestinian Authority, formed in 1994, was marked by rampant corruption and official mismanagement.

In 2003, the international community, concerned about millions in foreign aid going to waste, asked Palestinian economist Salam Fayyad to supervise Palestinian Authority spending. Fayyad, now the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority prime minister, is credited with providing greater transparency.

However, for years, little was done to go after those suspected of stealing public funds, until Abbas set up the anti-corruption commission and related court two years ago.