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Trial of ex-president of Costa Rica under way

SAN JOSE — Costa Rica this week is witnessing its second-ever court trial involving corruption accusations against an ex-president.

Former President Miguel Angel Rodriguez faces allegations that he accepted kickbacks in exchange for a $149 million contract from French cellphone maker Alcatel to provide phone lines here while he was president in 2001.

More than half a dozen other former officials, including ex-employees of the state-run power and telecom company, the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), also are implicated.

The evidence grew teeth in September 2008 when a former Alcatel executive, Christian Sapsizian, pleaded guilty in a Miami federal court to bribing Costa Rican officials to secure the deal. (This foreign corrupt practices blog follows that case.)

This came after a former ICE official had testified that he accepted $2.4 million for the Alcatel contract and that Rodriguez had pocketed $510,000 of it.

Rodriguez claims he’s innocent, a victim of political persecution. Political or not, the trial comes in a period of corruption crackdowns. Rodriguez is a member of the center-right opposition Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) — the same party as former President Rafael Angel Calderon who was sentenced in October to five years of prison for taking kickbacks in exchange for a medical equipment contract.

Now called Alcatel-Lucent, after a 2006 merger, the telephone company paid Costa Rica $10 million in March for “societal damages,” which according to the Costa Rican attorney general, adds further confirmation the company participated in corrupt acts.

Now the country’s prosecutors have to prove the former president was among the ones on the receiving end.

Rodriguez’ charges carry a maximum penalty of four years in prison, but he won’t likely be jailed even if convicted because Costa Rica gives probation to offenders with no criminal record who get a sentence of four years or less, The Associated Press reported.

The courtroom is full of national media, lawyers, judges and defendants, many — including this correspondent — clicking away on laptops while the prosecutors read off a 322-point accusation document. A few thousands dollars paid here, another hundred thousand there. The money is dizzying. This trial could take a while …