A San José criminal court on Wednesday sentenced former Costa Rican President Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, 71, to a five-year prison term for “instigating corruption” in a telecommunications deal involving the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) and French company Alcatel, now Alcatel-Lucent.
The former president, who also briefly served as secretary general of the Organization of American States, was found not guilty of a separate charge of illegal enrichment. Defense lawyers will likely appeal the ruling, which was handed down at 3:20 p.m. and lasted approximately three hours.
Eight other co-defendants also were found guilty of various corruption charges and received prison terms ranging from 18 months to 15 years. Three defendants, Guido Sibaja, Edgar Valverde and Luis Adrian Quirós, will begin serving prison terms immediately, as a preventive measure to prevent them from fleeing the country while the legality of the ruling is reviewed.
This is an important chapter in one of Costa Rica’s most polemic trials. In hot and crowded court room number three, local and foreign journalists anxiously waited to hear the ruling that would sentence a former president to jail for the second time since 2009.
At 2:46 pm, Rodríguez entered the courtroom while journalists shuffled and shoved to catch the slightest display of emotion or reaction.
Though the reading of the sentence started on time, a problem with courtroom audio interrupted the session for about 10 minutes, compounding the suspense.
As Judge Rosaura García, president of the tribunal, began to read the sentence, silence swept over the room. While the court handed Rodríguez a five-year prison sentence, the former president looked sternly at the panel of judges as he adjusted his tie.
“When Rodríguez Echeverría is informed about the corrupting proposal, he is the highest hierarchical figure in the country, and one of the few public workers honored with vows of support and truth of most of the Costa Rican people. In accordance with such responsibilities, higher care was expected,” García said. “However, the opposite occurred, and you chose corrupt conduct that generated a personal benefit from the payment of the bribes.”
Rodríguez served as president from 1998-2002. In 2004, he resigned his post as OAS secretary general and returned to Costa Rica to face corruption charges. Upon his arrival at Costa Rica’s Juan Santamaría International Airport, police arrested him.
His trial began on April 23, 2010, and ended April 5 of this year. During the yearlong process, judges Rosaura García and Ileana Méndez said they found credible evidence of the existence of a highly complex bribe payment network involving local and foreign businessmen, public workers, congress members and former President Rodríguez.
Alcatel employees paid bribes to persuade ICE directors and other government officials to buy 400,000 mobile phone lines.
Edgar Valverde, former president of Alcatel Costa Rica, was sentenced to a 15-year prison term. Judges described him as the “corruptor” in the scandal, having distributed bribes to the other defendants in the case.
Co-defendant Adrián Quirós allegedly used his company, Servicios Notariales Q.C, to hide and move the funds. Judges said that Carmona disguised the bribes as payments for telecommunications consulting services.
The bribery scheme targeted the politically powerful. One key player was Eliseo Vargas, a congressman for the Social Unity Christian Party, the same party as Rodríguez. Vargas was sentenced to two years prison.
Prosecutors had originally asked for a seven-year sentence for Rodriguez.
The case turned polemic when prosecutors agreed to offer an immunity deal to José Antonio Lobo, who at the time was ICE’s executive president. In exchange for Lobo’s testimony and sensitive inside information, bribery charges were dropped against him.
Defense lawyers argued that the case against them was based largely on Lobo’s testimony.
“Judges can’t use Lobo’s testimony as if he were just a witness. He was originally charged in the case, and the Prosecutor’s Office knows that,” said Rafael Giraud, a defense attorney for Rodríguez. “The tribunal has, however, based its ruling on the only thing they had all the time, Lobo’s testimony.”
As he exited the courtroom at 6:40 p.m., a defiant Rodríguez issued a brief statement, saying the charges against him are false.
“We will appeal. We will defend ourselves,” Rodríguez said. “What happened today is just another step forward down the same road... I want any one of you to tell me one illegal thing I did to merit these charges.”
“How can I consider to be fair a sentence that does not explain what happened. I am not upset. I am in the middle of the process I voluntarily came in for. If we have to appeal, then we will appeal,” Rodriguez said as supporters applauded.
During the trial, Lobo boarded a plane bound for the U.S., the daily La Nación reported. Defense attorneys emphasized again that Lobo should also be on trial for his role in the scandal.
“There’s a big difference when one person is allowed to leave the country while another person is prohibited from leaving,” Rodríguez said. “What a strange type of justice.”
At the end of the evening, Jorge Chavarría, chief public prosecutor, organized an unscheduled press conference to explain the court’s ruling and underline its independence from any political influence.
“We actually expected a harsh reaction from [defense] attorneys,” Chavarría said.
“In front of you is one of the better prosecutor’s offices of the world... We are certain we acted properly.”
Rodríguez becomes the second Costa Rican president arrested and convicted of bribery-related charges after serving in office. In 2009, former President Rafael Ángel Calderón (1990-1994), 62, received a five-year prison term for distributing millions of dollars in “commissions” in a medical equipment deal between a private company and Costa Rica’s Social Security System, known as the Caja (TT, Oct. 9, Aug. 7, 2009).