When Sarkis Yacoubian walks into a court room in downtown Havana Thursday to face corruption charges that could send him to prison for 12 years the Canadian businessman will have a high-powered diplomat keeping a close eye on his trial — Canada’s ambassador to Cuba.
As the Toronto Star revealed last week, Yacoubian, who ran a $30 million transport and trading company called Tri-Star Caribbean, was indicted by Cuban prosecutors in April on three counts of bribery, tax evasion and “activities damaging to the economy.”
After almost two years in custody without charges, Yacoubian’s fate will be decided by a panel of five judges in a trial that is expected to last no longer than two days.
In an apparent signal about just how seriously Ottawa views the case, the Department of Foreign Affairs this week informed Yacoubian’s lawyers in Canada that Ambassador Matthew Levin — who had visited Yacoubian at least four times while he was in La Condesa prison on the outskirts of Havana — will attend both days of the trial at the Havana Criminal Court, along with the Consul General at the embassy.
“It is very rare for the ambassador to show up in a court room,” said Gar Pardy, a former director general of consular services for Canada. “It sends a message to the Cuban authorities: this is a case of direct interest to the government of Canada.”
Yacoubian was arrested in July 2011 as part of Cuban Communist Party’s highly-charged political campaign against corruption. A second Canadian, Cy Tokmakjian, who runs a rival transportation firm, was arrested in September 2011 and remains in jail with no specific charges filed against him.
Yacoubian told the Star in a series of lengthy jailhouse phone interviews that he confessed and cooperated closely with his Cuban interrogators, pointing the finger at what he called the “bigger crooks” — a wide network of foreign companies engaged in widespread corruption and bribery.
Yacoubian said he had hoped that his close cooperation with the Cubans in exposing the web of corruption would help his case. “I was expecting any time these things will clear up,” he said.
But after nearly two years in detention, it has not happened.
“They expect me in court to say I am sorry and I will say that,” he said. “But I’m not going to lay quietly and be the victim.”
His family says Yacoubian now plans to plead guilty only to the lesser charge of bribery, which carries a five-year sentence, and not the more serious counts of tax evasion and damage to the economy that could bring seven and 12-year jail terms.
“Sarkis is ready for anything,” said Krikor Yacoubian who has been in almost daily contact by phone with his brother. “Sarkis is a guinea pig. His trial will be a test of how Canada is going to react.”
Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Emma Welford told the Star that Ottawa will not comment on the case “to protect the privacy of the individual concerned.”
Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, said the government controls the judicial system, “so you are at the mercy of a very horrible political system.”
Yacoubian’s case was investigated by the powerful Agency for Investigating Crimes against the Security of the State.
Prosecutors allege Yacoubian or his employees bribed Cuban officials from a vast array of government departments — from the Ministries of Construction, Transportation and Tourism to the government’s telecommunications monopoly — for advance information on government purchases or to favor Tri-Star.
Krikor Yacoubian says his brother will plead guilty to the charges of bribery, even though Sarkis insists he never initiated any payments but was forced to give money to Cuban officials to keep contracts he had already legitimately won.
“Sarkis never introduced payments in anyway,” said Krikor Yacoubian. “He had to pay.” But he says his brother will “vehemently deny” the other charges, which carry the heaviest sentences.