May 30, 2013 / 4:12 PM / 4 years ago

British businessmen's corruption trial opens in Cuba

* Executives charged with corrupt practices

* Second trial of foreigners in a week

* Part of broader government crackdown

By Marc Frank

HAVANA, May 30 (Reuters) - The trial of two top executives of a British investment fund opened in a Havana courthouse on Thursday as the government pressed an unprecedented crackdown on corruption.

In the second trial of foreign executives on the communist-run island in a week, Amado Fakhre, a Lebanese-born British citizen and chief executive officer of Coral Capital Group Ltd, faces various bribery charges related mainly to the fund's import business.

Chief Operating Officer Stephen Purvis, who headed various investment projects, faces lesser charges, such as operating outside the bounds of the fund's license, sources close to the case said on condition of anonymity.

Coral Capital was one of only a handful of small foreign investment funds in Cuba, where it said it had invested some $75 million and had more than $1 billion of projects in the works.

The company was caught up in a dragnet of Cuba's international trading sector, part of a broader crackdown on corruption by President Raul Castro after he replaced ailing brother Fidel in 2008.

The proceedings, in an old Havana mansion ringed by an iron fence, were closed to media.

Fakhre has been jailed since the company's offices were raided and closed in October 2011. Purvis was arrested and imprisoned in March 2012.

In September 2011, authorities shut down one of the most important Western trading companies in Cuba, Canada-based Tokmakjian Group, after doing the same in July to another Canadian trading firm, Tri-Star Caribbean.

The owner of Tri-Star Caribbean, Sarkis Yacoubian, originally from Armenia, was tried last week at the same court. He and an associate, Lebanese citizen Krikor Bayassalian, were charged with bribery, tax evasion and damaging the economy. A verdict has not been announced.

DOZENS ARRESTED

Dozens of Cuban officials and businessmen have reportedly been arrested, tried and sentenced in the anti-corruption sweep.

Cuban officials and lawyers for the defendants could not be reached for comment.

Cuba's state-run media has not yet reported the trials, nor mentioned the arrests and crackdown on foreign trade.

"The trials reveal that corruptive practices seem to have been not the exception but the norm for doing high-level business in Cuba," Bert Hoffman, a Cuba expert at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg.

"What would be needed is transparency, legal confidence, open calls and competition in dealing with the Cuban state and state-run companies. But there is no sign of that yet," he said.

Soon after taking office in 2008, Castro established the comptroller general's office, even as he began implementing market-oriented economic reforms.

That step marked the start of the anti-corruption campaign that uncovered high-level graft in sectors ranging from the cigar, nickel and communications industries to food processing and civil aviation.

Coral Capital, registered in the British Virgin Islands in 1999, was best known in Cuba as the joint venture partner in Havana's upscale Saratoga Hotel and another hotel complex on the resort key of Cayo Coco. It had plans to build golf courses and related real estate developments near Havana.

The fund branched into trade financing and importing heavy equipment and other merchandise and this may have led to its problems, foreign business sources said.

The company represented various international brands in Cuba, among them Liebherr Earth Moving, Yamaha Motor Corporation and Peugeot Motorcycles, according to its website, now defunct. (Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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