9 Years for Ex-Ukrainian Premier

ReutersPavlo Lazarenko leaving a San Francisco court after his sentencing Friday.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko was sentenced to nine years in prison and fined $10 million in a U.S. court on Friday after being convicted in 2004 of extortion and money laundering.

"A significant sentence is appropriate," U.S. District Judge Martin Jenkins said.

Lazarenko, 53, became a multimillionaire while in power during the chaotic early post-Soviet days of the 1990s. He is the first foreign leader to be sentenced in a U.S. court since Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega in 1992.

Dressed in a suit and looking nervous prior to the hearing, Lazarenko did not show any visible reaction and took notes as he listened to a Russian-language translation of the judge through headphones. "I await the appeal," he said as he left the court. "Over the past year and a half, we have been fully preparing for the appeal, going over all the transcripts and the details."

U.S. prosecutors had sought a sentence of more than 18 years, plus restitution of more than $43 million and forfeiture of nearly $23 million. Jenkins said he would rule in the next 90 days on the restitution and forfeiture issues.

Lazarenko has been kept under house arrest in a one-bedroom San Francisco apartment since 2003. Defense lawyers asked that he not be subject to any more detention.

Lazarenko's lawyers said he would get at least 3 1/2 years credit for time spent in detention from 1999 to 2003, and would likely serve about five more years in prison if an appeals court did not overturn the verdict.

"I think it could have been higher," said Martha Boersch, who led the government prosecution of the case from 1998 to 2004. But "it's a pretty significant sentence. I hope it serves as a lesson to people," said Boersch, who is now in private practice. "When a public official abuses his office to steal -- in his case, you know, millions of dollars from his people -- it's one of the most serious crimes there is. And if you bring that money to the United States and launder it through U.S. banks, I think the lesson is you're looking at spending a significant amount of time in jail."

A jury convicted Lazarenko, Ukraine's prime minister from 1996 to 1997, on 29 counts of extortion, laundering money through California banks, fraud, and transportation of stolen property.

Lazarenko's lawyer tried unsuccessfully to convince a jury that it was acceptable in the Ukraine for a politician to earn millions on the side in the free-wheeling post-Communist era.

"We believe no American crime was committed," the lawyer, Doron Weinberg, said Friday. "We expect that will be the result of the appeal."

 In Ukraine, analysts and politicians praised the sentence as a victory over corruption but lamented that Ukrainian authorities had not done enough to tackle the problem, The Associated Press reported.

"The role of U.S. justice turned out to be positive. Ukraine has not had court hearings of the kind," political analyst Mykhailo Pohrebinsky said. "It has a symbolic meaning: Corruption can be punishable -- even if not in Ukraine, but outside."

Lawmaker Serhiy Teryokhin said Lazarenko got what he deserved. He said, however, it was "strange that it's the United States that punishes for crimes committed in Ukraine."

Yehor Khmelko, a Kiev businessman, said Lazarenko's fate was less the result of his financial dealings than of political missteps. "He shouldn't have fled Ukraine," Khmelko added. "All those who made huge money by state-scale fraud are in power now."