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3 Lithuanian lawmakers guilty of financial fraud

Liudas Dapkus

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) -- Three Lithuanian legislators from a populist coalition party were found guilty of massive financial fraud in a case prosecutors investigated over seven years, with two lawmakers receiving prison sentences, a court announced Friday.

The Vilnius district court sentenced Viktor Uspaskich, who leads the Labor Party, to four years in prison, while colleague Vitalija Vonzutaite received a three-year sentence. The third defendant, Vytautas Gapsys, was hit with a 35,700 litas (10,270 euro) fine.

The three lawmakers have claimed they were the victims of a political vendetta and that they would appeal any guilty verdict.

For the past decade the Russia-born Uspaskich, who made a fortune on real estate and selling jarred pickles, has arguably been the most colorful personality in Lithuanian politics. But he has also been dogged by scandal, and in 2006 he was forced to resign his position as economy minister after getting mired in a potential conflict-of-interest case.

Prosecutors claimed that the Labor Party, which Uspaskich founded in 2003, manipulated its books for the 2004 parliamentary elections and ended up spending some 826,000 litas (239,400 euros) more than they declared. The Labor Party went on to win the election that year.

The Labor Party, which placed third in last year's national election and became part of the left-leaning government coalition, was also charged with failing to report more than 24 million litas in income and 23 million litas in spending between 2004 and 2006.

Uspaskich, a former member of the European Parliament, Gapsys, and Vonzutaite were stripped of their immunity earlier this year to allow the trial to proceed.

It is unclear how the verdict will affect Lithuania's ruling coalition, which is currently hosting the six-month rotating EU presidency.