Cuban trial an attempt to 'demonize' Canadian businessman, company says
Andrea Janus, CTVNews.ca
Published Monday, July 7, 2014 1:34PM EDT
A verdict appears imminent in the case of a Canadian man who is charged with fraud, bribery and other offences in Cuba in a prosecution that those close to him say is an effort to “demonize” a successful businessman.
Cy Tokmakjian, 74, was arrested in 2011 and was held without charge for nearly three years. Then earlier this year, he was slapped with six charges: bribery, fraud, currency trafficking, forgery, tax evasion and crimes against the Cuban economy.
But those closest to the Thornhill, Ont. father of three and grandfather of seven maintain that the charges against him are baseless.
Tokmakjian’s defence team “did a spectacular job refuting and dismantling all charges,” Lee Hacker, vice president of finance for the Tokmakjian Group, said in a statement obtained by CTVNews.ca. Tokmakjian’s trial wrapped up last month.
“What can you do when truth and logic is not part of the equation?” Hacker added.
Tokmakjian has been held at the notorious La Condesa prison on the outskirts of Havana since his arrest, but has spent time in hospital due to undisclosed health problems.
His family and business associates say Cuban authorities have tried to compel him to confess to minor offences in order to speed up his trial and secure his immediate release. But he has denied all charges against him, and chose instead to have his day in court. Prosecutors are seeking a 15-year jail term, The Associated Press reported last week.
Tokmakjian, an Armenian born in Syria before immigrating to Canada, started his first business in Ontario more than 40 years ago. The Tokmakjian Group remains one of Canada’s largest transportation companies, selling buses and other vehicles, as well as parts, to private and public companies.
In 1988, the business expanded into a number of countries, including Cuba, where subsidiary Tokmakjian Limited has sold a variety of goods. The company has done hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of business in Cuba, according to documents filed in Cuban court.
“He’s always been proud of employing people,” his son, Raffi Tokmakjian, told CTV News Channel last week. “That’s what drove him the most.”
Company executives and Tokmakjian’s family say that after years of giving Cubans jobs and contributing to the nation’s economy, he is being unfairly prosecuted as part of a corruption crackdown that is focused solely on foreign businessmen.
A statement of defence accuses the prosecution of trying to “spice up contractual and commercial relations with criminal elements” with the Cuban government’s allegations that Tokmakjian extended financial favours to Cuban officials to further his business dealings.
Raffi Tokmakjian, executive vice president of Tokmakjian Group, says his father had never before had any problems in his business dealings with the Cuban government, and prized honesty above all.
“He never has done anything wrong,” he told CTV News Channel. “In fact, when I started working with him down there, one of the first things he said was, ‘Raffi, integrity is more important than anything.’”
Tokmakjian’s associates accuse the Cuban government of prosecuting Tokmakjian in order to gain control of his financially lucrative business operations. In a lawsuit filed in April in Ontario court, the Tokmakjian Group accused the Cuban government of not only seizing the company assets, but also carrying on its business operations.
The suit seeks $150 million in damages “for unlawful seizure, conversion, unjust enrichment and unlawful interference with economic relations.”
It also seeks $10 million in punitive damages, related legal costs and damages for future economic losses.
The company says the Cuban government “wishes to get rid of” Tokmakjian, calling him “the prize that certain people in Cuba want to demonize.” In his statement, Hacker suggests that because Tokmakjian was outspoken about unnamed issues with Cuban officials, the government is now punishing him.
“Unfortunately when you are the largest and most successful foreign businessman in Cuba there are many that want to knock you off your pedestal,” Hacker said.
At around the same time that Tokmakjian was detained, British businessman Stephen Purvis was arrested and held for 15 months before being convicted of breaching Cuba’s financial regulations, released and sent home. In a letter to the Economist magazine published last year, he wrote that he was held with both hardened criminals “and a handful of confused businessmen, most of whom were in a parallel to predicament to me.”
He wrote that the so-called “war against corruption may be a convenient political banner to hide behind and one that foreign governments and press will support. But the reasons for actively and aggressively pursuing foreign business are far more complicated.”
He says the laws around foreign investment, and the manner in which they are enforced, must be revised or Cuba “will remain extremely risky for non-bilateral foreign business and foreign executives should be under no illusion about the great personal risks they run if they choose to do business there.”