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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Company of Canadian facing Cuba charges says legitimate transactions wrongly treated as graft

HAVANA - The company and family of a Canadian business executive awaiting a court ruling in Cuba defended him against accusations of graft, arguing that what were in fact "legitimate commercial transactions" were wrongly characterized as corrupt at trial.

A two-page statement sent to The Associated Press by the Tokmakjian Group also complained that company president Cy Tokmakjian's trial, which ended June 21, was unfairly stacked against him.

It said he was held without charge for two years while the results of the investigation were kept secret, and then given just two months to present a defence. Meanwhile 14 of 18 proposed defence witnesses, including international tax experts, were rejected by the court without explanation.

"We are concerned that the outcome of the trial is predetermined given the reluctance by the Cuban authorities to rectify gross procedural mistakes," the statement said.

Prosecutors are seeking 15 years for Tokmakjian and 8 to 20 for more than a dozen others named as defendants. They include two more Canadians as well as Cuban employees of the company, government officials and workers at state-run businesses.

On Monday, Communist Party newspaper Granma said Tokmakjian was accused of corruption to obtain benefits in contract negotiations, unauthorized financial transactions, illegally taking large amounts of money out of the country, falsifying documents to avoid taxes and payroll irregularities. A ruling is expected soon.

Tokmakjian is among a number of foreigners and dozens of Cubans arrested in 2011 as part of a high-profile crackdown on graft that targeted multiple businesses operating in the country.

Another Canadian, Sarkis Yacoubian of Tri-Star Caribbean, was sentenced to nine years in 2013 but freed earlier this year and allowed to return home.

Canada's Foreign Affairs office has said it is monitoring its citizens' legal cases in Cuba and providing consular services, but declined to comment further. Ottawa's ambassador to Havana attended Tokmakjian's trial.

The statement from the Tokmakjian Group, an international transportation company based in Concord, Ontario, questioned why an individual was being held liable for a corporate tax issue, and said any claims were purely commercial and should have been handled in arbitration rather than a criminal court.

"A simple and objective reading of recent court decisions will lead to the conclusion that what is shown as 'corruption' is internationally accepted business practices," it said. "Commercial activities such as discounting bills of exchange or providing supplier credit appear as 'evidences of corruption.' Earning profits out of a commercial activity is considered a 'crime against (the) economic interests of Cuba.'"

Tokmakjian's trial came to a close within days of a new law taking effect that Cuba hopes will lure much-needed foreign investment. Officials say it safeguards commercial and personal property rights.

Though Cuban authorities made no details publicly available while the trial was ongoing, its outcome is sure to be scrutinized by the foreign business community and likely by potential investors.

"Although no one will (dispute) the legitimacy of Cuba to combat corruption," the Tokmakjian Group statement said, "this fight against corruption has been used as an excuse to deprive companies operating in Cuba of their rights and assets with no compensation."

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Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed.

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Peter Orsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter_Orsi

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