Eight years of battle over a key embargo issue came to a close early this year as the U.S. government quietly withdrew its final attack on Canadian businessman James Sabzali, an effort to deport him from his adopted home in the United States. Washington had pursued deportation despite an earlier plea agreement with Sabzali. "The government reneged on its offer," he explained in an interview.
Canadian accused of trading with Cuba given fine, probation for 'smuggling'
By STEVE ECKARDT
PHILADELPHIA (CP) - The long-running case of Canadian businessman James Sabzali, charged with violating the U.S. embargo against Cuba, came to a quiet close Friday as he received a year's probation in exchange for pleading guilty to a single charge of "smuggling" several thousand dollars worth of supplies destined for the island.
He was also fined $10,000 US.
Sabzali had been charged with 75 counts of violating the 1917 U.S. Trading with the Enemy Act and a single count of conspiracy for sales of nearly $3 million worth of water-purification supplies to Cuba. He faced a possible life sentence and a fine of over $19 million.
Sabzali's conviction on the single charge of smuggling references his importation of goods in violation of U.S. law: in this case, re-export to Cuba by a U.S. business with which he was working. Prosecutors allowed the 45-year-old Canadian, a Philadelphia-area resident since 1996, to plead guilty to this new offence to avoid the automatic deportation required by all of the original charges.
"Right now, I feel great," said Sabzali.
"It's nice to get this chapter over with and move on with my life."
But while Sabzali called the agreement a "victory," the settlement may have kept alive the case's most contentious issue: Washington's asserted right to enforce U.S. law beyond its borders.
The original 76 charges - 32 of which were for sales made while Sabzali was living and working in Canada - brought a wave of objections about U.S. "extraterritorial measures" from Canadian editorialists and demonstrators, as well as two diplomatic protest notes from Ottawa.
Today's settlement has the Canadian salesman admitting guilt for a 1994 transaction that occurred while he lived in Hamilton and was a self-employed Canadian businessman.
Sabzali's conviction via his guilty plea demonstrates "you're not allowed to violate the laws of this country just because you live outside it," said assistant U.S. attorney Joseph Poluka in an interview.
"You need to educate your Canadian audience," he told the Canadian Press.
Meanwhile Sabzali said: "The difference between the 76 counts and the single one we settled on is between possible life in prison and a single year of probation. It's a chasm that speaks volumes about the strength of the government's case."
Poluka disputed that assessment, saying: "It's not a question of numbers. This was a way to settle this case to everyone's satisfaction."
"It's simply a matter of avoiding still lengthier litigation."
Legal proceedings stretched out nearly 3 1/2 years. The investigation began in February 1997.
Sabzali's April 2002 conviction on 21 charges, after a seventeen-day trial, was overturned by the presiding judge because of "improper and inflammatory arguments made by prosecutors to the jury during closing arguments."
Last June, U.S. federal Justice Mary McLaughlin granted a motion for a retrial for Sabzali, convicted last April for violating the U.S. embargo against Cuba because of prosecutorial misconduct.
In a 31-page ruling, the judge wrote she was very concerned by "inflammatory language...strewn throughout the (prosecutor's closing) argument."
Declaring: "It is never proper to throw around such inflammatory language in a criminal trial," McLaughlin wrote the prosecutor's repeated charges of defence lying served to "stir up the jury" and had "no place in the argument of an assistant United States attorney."
While finding prosecutorial misconduct required she set aside Sabzali's convictions on one count of conspiracy and 20 counts of violating the Trading with the Enemy Act, the judge rejected a defence motion for acquittal, leaving the Hamilton native under indictment for 76 embargo violations and conspiracy.