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Originally published May 23, 2013 at 8:03 AM | Page modified May 23, 2013 at 9:54 AM

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Canada businessman's corruption trial on in Cuba

A Canadian businessman caught up in a corruption probe in Cuba apparently went on trial Thursday, nearly two years after he was detained and his import company, Tri-Star Caribbean, was shuttered.

Associated Press

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HAVANA —

A Canadian businessman caught up in a corruption probe in Cuba apparently went on trial Thursday, nearly two years after he was detained and his import company, Tri-Star Caribbean, was shuttered.

Sarkis Yacoubian arrived at an Interior Ministry courthouse in Havana in a black sedan with tinted windows, and was seen being escorted inside by two men.

He did not speak to reporters, nor did Canadian Ambassador Matthew Levin, who also attended the proceedings. Foreign journalists were not allowed access to the court, and government officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

President Raul Castro has repeatedly spoken of a need to root out entrenched corruption on this Communist-run island, and his anti-graft drive has swept up foreign business executives from at least five nations, as well as government officials and dozens of Cuban employees at key state-run companies.

The Toronto Star and El Nuevo Herald reported last week that Yacoubian was indicted last month on charges of bribery, tax evasion and "activities damaging to the economy." He reportedly faces up to 12 years in prison.

In a phone interview from jail, he said he had no choice but to pay island officials to secure business contracts, and claimed to have blown the whistle on corruption involving Tri-Star and other companies.

"They found out this was an epidemic going all over the place and I was the fall guy," Yacoubian was quoted as saying by the Star and El Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald's Spanish-language sister newspaper. "They want to give an example to the rest of the businessmen. They want to scare them to death."

Another Canadian businessman, Cy Tokmakjian, president of the Tokmakjian Group, which was raided and closed down in September 2011, is also awaiting trial, as is a Briton who headed the investment firm Coral Capital Group.

In late April, Havana announced that the Tokmakjian Group's operating license had been rescinded due to unspecified actions "that are contrary to the principles and ethics that should characterize commercial activity and contravene Cuban judicial order."

Other acknowledged or rumored corruption probes have targeted food distributor Rio Zaza, run by a Chilean man who was close to former President Fidel Castro; Cuba's civil aviation authority; cigar manufacturer Habanos SA, and state telecom Etecsa.

More than 150 foreign businesspeople and scores of small South American and European companies have been kicked out of the country.

Thursday's court proceedings took place at the same converted mansion where U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross was sentenced to 15 years for crimes against the state after he was caught bringing restricted communications equipment onto the island and setting up unauthorized Internet networks.

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Associated Press journalist Fernando Gonzalez in Havana contributed to this report.

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Peter Orsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter-Orsi

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