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Court sentences former president to five years in prison over kickbacks

Costa Rica’s right wing is reeling after a San Jose court sentenced the former president, Rafael Angel Calderon, to five years in prison for accepting kickbacks and arranging other unlawful payments from a Finnish medical firm, in the country’s first corruption trial against a previous head of state.

Calderon, who led the country from 1990 to 1994, was found guilty Monday of receiving some $520,000 from a loan intended for medical equipment for the Costa Rica’s public hospitals. Calderon says he’s innocent and that the money was a consulting fee.

Vowing to appeal the ruling, Calderon nevertheless has pulled out of the race to the February 2010 presidential elections, serving a blow to the opposition Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC).

He told reporters the ruling was a “huge surprise.”

In mid-August, following a CID-Gallup poll that put him far behind in the presidential race, Calderon told the daily La Republica, “Internal surveys tell us that the Costa Ricans will give me their support when I’m declared innocent.”

On Tuesday, the same newspaper wrote in its editorial, “We think it would have been best if this trial hadn’t coincided with a political campaign.”

The ex-president’s case has stained the opposition party since Calderon’s arrest in 2004.

Contrary to their clean green image, Costa Ricans are wary of graft in their midst. A State of the Nation study released in August said Ticos were more concerned about corruption than any of their Central American neighbors.

In addition to Calderon's sentence, the court handed a five-year prison term to the former head of the social security system and lesser sentences to other former health officials and executives of a private firm, Fischel, which represents a Finnish medical company in Costa Rica.

And the chief prosecutor may press for a harsher sentence.

Maybe Costa Ricans were expecting it, but PUSC seems like it didn’t see it coming, or else why would it choose a convict to campaign in the 2010 elections?

The party’s president, Luis Fishman, told the daily La Nacion “We have a government program, we’re ready to govern … We’ve been hit very hard, [we’re] very surprised.”