George Becali, a self-made millionaire and politician, was sentenced on Monday by Romania’s High Court to three years in jail for abuse of power in a case involving an illegal exchange of land with the Ministry of Defense.
Prosecutors said that The Ministry of Defense exchanged 29 hectares of arable land in the Voluntari area (near Bucharest), with a cheaper land plot provided by Becali, incurring a loss of USD 900,000 to the government.
The former high ranking military officials that carried out the deal were also handed prison sentences by the five judges of the High Court. Former Defense minister Victor Babiuc and the former Chief of Staff Dumitru Cioflina have been jailed for two years for abuse of power.
Authorities seized the property of the three defendants in order to recover the loss incurred to the state budget.
The land swap took place between 1996 and 1999 and prosecutors started an investigation in 2000. The case was sent to a court in 2010 and the defendants were acquitted two years later by the High Court due to lack of evidence and prosecutors appealed the decision.
“If I hadn’t entered into politics, I wouldn’t have had the problems I have. Would have I been convicted now? They convicted the MEP and MP George Becali. This has been my faith and this is the cross I have to carry. I’ll do it and that’s it,” Becali told reporters shortly after finding out he will do some jail time.
The businessman mandated his lawyer to ask for a presidential pardon.
Becali attempted to flee the country on Sunday but was stopped by airport police, which had a warrant on his name. He is charged with fraud and embezzlement in another case. Becali argued that he wanted to go to Israel to pray before the court’s decision.
Becali received a combined three year conviction as judges decided to change the three years suspended sentence for withholding the people that had stolen his luxury car to three years in jail. If it hadn’t been for his previous conviction, he would have spent only two years behind bars.
From sheep herder to political contender
Becali, aged 54, grew up in a family of shepherds and build his fortune in real estate. He holds more than 400 hectares of land, out of which more than half is located in the Voluntari area, which has registered a construction boom in recent years. He ranks 22nd in the Forbes list with an estimated fortune of EUR 145 million.
Despite of attacking journalists, he was a media darling that got extensive coverage in Romanian news. He would speak about anything from sports to his religious beliefs. Becali was accused of bashing sexual and religious minorities as well as women.
His popularity took off after becoming the owner of football club Steaua Bucharest, which would later come in handy for his political career.
He founded his own party PNG-CD in 2004 and was elected MEP in 2009. He quit his job in 2012 and successfully ran for an MP position in Romania. He was supported by the center-left ruling coalition USL in elections and became independent in February 2013. He was member of the Justice commission.
Becali is an outspoken Orthodox Christian who has done charity work, donating money to poor and sick Romanians. He also sponsored Romanian churches and visited on several occasions the Ortodox establishments at Mount Athos.
Becali’s sentence has stirred the interest of international news outlets. Reuters news agency reported that Becali is one of the big names convicted in a country that is trying to show it can solve high-profile corruption cases. L’Equipe mentioned the loss incurred by the land swap and Associated Press newswire outlined the reasons that got Becali behind bars. The news was also picked up by the Chicago Tribune, and by the Ansa and Belga newswires.