Page last updated at 11:17 GMT, Tuesday, 17 March 2009

'Suitcase cash' man jailed in US

A courtroom drawing of Franklin Duran on 21 October 2008
Mr Duran's lawyer said they would appeal

A court in Miami has sentenced a Venezuelan businessman to four years in prison for acting as an illegal agent of the Venezuelan government in the US.

Prosecutors said Franklin Duran came to the US to try to cover up the source of a suitcase stuffed with cash that was seized at Buenos Aires airport in 2007.

They said Venezuela sent the funds to back the election campaign of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez.

Both the Venezuelan and Argentine governments have denied any wrongdoing.

Franklin Duran was convicted last November of conspiracy and failing to register as a foreign agent in the US.

Passing sentence on Monday, Judge Joan Lenard said Duran did not spy against the US or threaten US national interests, but that acting as an illegal foreign agent was a serious crime.

"The respect of the sovereignty of the United States is paramount," Judge Lenard said.

Prosecutors said Duran went to Miami to pressure a Venezuelan-American businessman, Guido Antonini, to conceal the source and destination of an alleged illegal $800,000 (570,000) campaign donation from Venezuela to Cristina Fernandez as she ran for election in 2007.

'Smear campaign'

The alleged plot first came to light when Mr Antonini, who is based in Florida, was stopped in August 2007 as he tried to enter Argentina carrying the suitcase.

Guido Antonini Wilson leaves the Federal Court in Miami (23/09/2008)
Guido Antonini was wired to record meetings and phone conversations

Mr Antonini was not charged with any crime and returned home to Florida, where he agreed to co-operate with US investigators in an operation that led to Mr Duran's arrest.

Prosecutors said the evidence clearly showed that Mr Duran had come to Miami to cover up the source of the suitcase cash at the request of the Venezuelan intelligence service.

Duran's lawyer said his client would appeal.

Two other Venezuelans and a Uruguayan national have already been sentenced after pleading guilty to acting as illegal foreign agents. They said the Venezuelan intelligence agency played a central role in the attempted cover-up.

A fifth Venezuelan identified in court as an intelligence agent remains at large.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and President Fernandez have both rejected the prosecution claims as politically motivated attempts by the US to smear their reputations.

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