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Morales ally jailed for corruption

A former close ally of Bolivian president Evo Morales has been convicted of corruption for taking bribes while running the state-run YPFB oil company and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

The court also handed a six-year sentence in absentia to an Argentinian businessman convicted of paying the bribes in a case that might never have come to light if not for an armed robbery that turned fatal.

Santos Ramirez, a longtime Morales confidant tapped by the president to run YPFB after he declared state sovereignty over Bolivia's natural gas reserves, was convicted of corruption, influence-peddling and other crimes.

The businessman convicted of bribing him, Agustin Tomas Melano, ran the consulting firm Catler Hidrocarburos.

It was a partner in a consortium to which YPFB granted a 86 million US dollar contract to build a liquification natural gas plant. Melano is a fugitive.

The scandal broke in January 2009 when Melano's chief partner in the Bolivian-Argentine consortium was shot in the face during an armed robbery of 450,000 US dollars in cash. Prosecutors said the money, drawn from a YPFB account, constituted a pay-off.

The victim, Jorge O'Connor Darlach, died just outside the La Paz apartment building of a cousin of a man who was a brother-in-law of Ramirez. Police said they believed he was delivering the cash to the cousin.

The brother-in-law was a YPFB employee and both he and Ramirez's then wife, Geovana Navia, were among seven other defendants also convicted of roles in the scheme. They were sentenced to between three and nine years by a special five-member court composed of two lawyers and three private citizens.

After the scandal broke, Ramirez divorced Navia and blamed his in-laws. Navia's lawyer expressed outrage, claiming his client learned of the divorce from the press. It is not clear how much in bribes was paid by the Catler-Uniservice consortium in which Melano and O'Connor, a Bolivian, were partners.

The case has been a major embarrassment for Mr Morales, an Aymara Indian who is Bolivia's first indigenous president. Ramirez, of Quechua origin, had been a close collaborator of the president since before his election, serving as president of the Senate before being named chief of the state-run oil company.


From Belfast Telegraph