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Romanian ex-PM's jail sentence upheld in landmark verdict

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Romanian ex-PM's jail sentence upheld in landmark verdict

Adrian Nastase - Photo EU Council

(BUCHAREST) - Romania's supreme court on Wednesday threw out an appeal by former prime minister Adrian Nastase against a two-year jail sentence in a graft trial closely monitored by the European Union.

"The court upholds the two-year jail sentence," magistrate Marcela Radu said while reading the judgement, after five judges deliberated for six hours.

Nastase, 61, who headed a Social Democrat government between 2000 and 2004, was convicted for siphoning off funds totalling about 1.5 million euros ($1.8 million) for his 2004 re-election campaign.

Prosecutors said public institutions and private companies were pressured into taking part in a 2004 construction contest with participation fees passing through several accounts before ending up paying for Nastase's presidential campaign posters.

Although he was head of the government at the time, he was convicted in his capacity as leader of the Social Democrat Party, whose candidate for the presidential race he was.

The ex-prime minister, who was not present in court, has 24 hours to turn himself in to the police for his imprisonment.

Nastase always denied the charges, saying he was victim of a "political trial".

Having exhausted the last legal recourse in Romania, one of Nastase's lawyers, Lucian Bolcas, told Realitatea TV that his client planned to appeal the verdict at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Nastase is the most senior figure condemned in Romania since the fall of former Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

He is described by analysts as the political mentor of Romania's current Prime Minister Victor Ponta.

"This verdict is opening a new era for Romanian justice in which judges are no longer afraid of condemning powerful people," Laura Stefan, an anti-corruption expert for the think tank Expert Forum, told AFP.

"It will make politicians think twice when they use their political attributions and the budget they are allocated for their personal interest. This is a very strong warning" against graft at top level, she added.

"The verdict marks a vey important turning point for the independence and the integrity of the Romanian judiciary," diplomats told AFP.

Romania's judiciary has been under close scrutiny from the European Commission since 2007, with Brussels insisting on more efforts to fight high-level corruption in the former Communist country.

"I think everything that has been done in the past years to reform the Romanian justice system is now bearing fruit," Stefan stressed.

Very few heads of government have been sentenced to jail in Europe on corruption charges.

Italy's Bettino Craxi was sentenced in the 1990s to 27 years in prison -- of which nine years and eight months were upheld by appeal courts -- for corruption and the illegal financing of his now defunct party. He fled to Tunisia to escape justice and died in exile in 2000.

Nastase is facing two more trials, after prosecutors appealed recent Supreme Court rulings.

In December he was acquitted of corruption in a case involving a suspicious $400,000 inheritance left to his wife.

In January, he was sentenced to a three-year suspended jail term for blackmail and cleared of graft.

Prosecutors had charged him with receiving some 630,000 euros ($841,000) in bribes from a construction company owner in exchange for appointing her head of the Construction Inspectorate.

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