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Cy Tokmakjian's family disputes Cuba charges after Canadian sentenced

09/29/2014 09:12 EDT | Updated 11/29/2014 05:59 EST
The family of a 74-year-old Canadian businessman sentenced in Cuba to 15 years in prison on corruption-related charges says he didn’t do anything wrong.

The 74-year-old, who owns the Ontario-based Tokmakjian Group, was one of several foreign executives swept up in a Cuban campaign against corruption in 2011. His sentence was handed down on Friday.

His sister, Sonia Tokmakjian, said in a telephone interview from her home in Ontario that her brother wasn’t doing anything wrong.

“Some of the things they are accusing him of — for example, bribery — I mean, this happens in Canada,” she said. “Companies do give customers gifts, they do take them travelling, they do wining and dining.”

The company's Cuban offices were raided in 2011 as Cuba launched an anti-graft drive that has swept up foreign business executives from at least five nations, as well as government officials and dozens of Cuban employees at key state-run companies.

Tokmakjian, who has a home in Havana, was arrested in September of that year along with two other company executives and charged with corruption, conducting unauthorized financial transactions and illegally taking large amounts of money out of the country.

Tokmakjian dismissed the allegations, saying her brother ran a successful business in Cuba for decades.

“It was mainly transportation, he had a tourist bus,” she told CBC News. “He was an entrepreneur. He would buy cars from Korea — Hyundai's — and sell them in Cuba.”

'Not an isolated event'

But circumstances for Cy Tokmakjian and other foreigners doing business in Cuba changed in 2011 when Cuba's Communist Party elected Raul Castro to succeed older brother Fidel Castro as president.

Havana-based freelance reporter Abel Gonzales said companies like Tokmakjian's were raided and shut down, and their owners were arrested.

“It was not an isolated event. It also happened with other foreign companies. It was part of the initiative of Raul Castro to fight corruption in high levels of the government,” Gonzales said.

Foreign Affairs said consular services are being provided, and officials are in contact with authorities in Havana and continue to monitor the case closely.

Cuba's judicial system is known for speedy proceedings behind closed doors with little or no media access. Cuban officials have said little about the Tokmakjian case beyond announcing last year that the Tokmakjian Group's operating licence had been rescinded due to unspecified actions.

Tokmakjian managers Claudio Vetere and Marco Puche got 12- and eight-year sentences, respectively, company vice-president Lee Hacker told The Associated Press.

'Gross miscarriage of justice'

Conservative MP Peter Kent, whose Thornhill, Ont., riding includes the company's headquarters, visited Tokmakjian in prison last year.

“He disproved every specific allegation. They simply couldn’t find any hard evidence against him."

Tokmakjian was given the 15 years without the benefit of a sentencing hearing, Kent said.

“Which is, I suppose, the ultimate chapter in this gross miscarriage of justice.” 

Kent said Tokmakjian’s best chance could be a transfer to a Canadian prison to serve out the rest of his sentence, or the Cuban government could simply expel him.

Meanwhile, Tokmakjian's company has launched legal action against Cuba’s government over an estimated $100 million in assets it seized.

Officials with the company are expected to release further details at a news conference Monday morning.

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