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Manhattan judge sentences ex-Guatemala president in money laundering scheme

In this Nov. 17, 2011 file photo, Guatemala's

In this Nov. 17, 2011 file photo, Guatemala's former President Alfonso Portillo listens to journalist's questions as he arrives to court in Guatemala City. Portillo was sentenced on Thursday, May 22, 2104 to more than five years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy in New York as part of a bribery scandal. Credit: AP

Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo was sentenced to 70 months in prison in Manhattan federal court Thursday for laundering a $2.5 million bribe through the U.S. financial system.

Portillo, 62, who led the Central American nation from 2000 to 2004, said at his guilty plea in March that he received the money from Taiwan in return for assuring Guatemalan recognition of the Taipei government, whose legitimacy is contested by China.

Federal sentencing guidelines called for Portillo to get between 57 and 71 months. "There's too much corruption," said U.S. District Judge Robert Patterson, whose sentence was near the top of that range.

"The case has importance in how we treat violations of laws against corruption and the impact on this country and in terms of what role we're going to play," added the judge, who also ordered Portillo to forfeit $2.5 million.

Portillo was charged with embezzlement and acquitted in Guatemala after leaving office. He was arrested again in 2010 on the U.S. charges and extradited last year after a long legal struggle. His lawyer asked for a sentence of time served.

The ex-president, speaking in a courtroom filled with family and supporters, told Patterson he was "profoundly embarrassed" by his criminal behavior, but asked for leniency based on the benefits his presidency brought to his country.

"I'm not trying to justify my mistake or crime," he said. "God and history will know whether I was a good or bad man during my time on this Earth."

Prosecutors, who alleged that Portillo moved corrupt money through U.S. banks to accounts in France, Luxembourg and Switzerland, lauded the stiff sentence.

"Portillo . . . used his office as a siphon to extract millions of dollars in bribes from Taiwan," said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. ". . . the U.S. banking system is not open for business to those seeking to hide illegal funds."

With wire service reports

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