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SOFIA, Feb 15 (Reuters) - A Bulgarian court sentenced a gang kingpin on Friday to 7 1/2 years in prison for laundering drug-dealing profits, a small step against rampant organised crime that has slowed the Balkan state's full integration into the European Union.
The EU's poorest member has been repeatedly criticised by Brussels for doing too little to fight widespread corruption and gangsterism that which still blight Bulgaria two decades after the end of Communist rule.
This has deterred investors, hindered growth and delayed Bulgaria's entry into the Schengen zone of borderless EU travel, more than five years after it was admitted to the EU.
Prosecutors had demanded a 12-year sentence for Evelin Banev "Brendo", 49, whose lawyer said he would appeal against Friday's verdict by the Sofia city court.
He was accused of having laundered more than two million euros ($2.67 million) in drug-trafficking proceeds using a personal account belonging to a businessman shot dead in 2005.
Some 30 people, including 15 Bulgarians, 12 Italians, one Slovenian, one Romanian and one Georgian were arrested, with Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov saying the cocaine had been sold in three regions of Italy.
Italian police said Banev's gang was responsible for smuggling around 40 tonnes of cocaine to Italy per year.
Three accomplices of Banev, including his ex-wife, were handed three-year suspended sentences by the Sofia court.
Neighbouring Romania also issued a warrant for the arrest of Banev, accusing him of running one of Europe's biggest cocaine trafficking rings using yachts, freighters and speedboats between Colombia and Europe. ($1 = 0.7495 euros) (Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Mark Heinrich)