A San José court rejected most of an appeal by former Costa Rican President Rafael Calderón last week, but the court ruled to lighten his charges and overturned his five-year jail sentence.
Calderón, age 62, was convicted in October 2009 of two charges of embezzlement for helping divert millions of dollars from a Finnish government loan to Costa Rica’s social security system in 2004, after his presidency.
Last Wednesday, the appeals court reduced the ruling to a single embezzlement charge with three years in prison.
However, Calderón won’t go behind bars.
Under Costa Rican law, a person who is handed a sentence of three years or less, and whose record is otherwise clean, can walk.
In Calderón’s case, the judges said he must refrain from breaking the law for five years or else he could lose this get-out-of-jail card.
Costa Rica’s justice system confirmed that a former president took up to $500,000 in kickbacks of public funds meant to be used to purchase medical equipment, but set him free. This drew a muted but “respectful” reaction in a brief statement from the Public Ministry that took him down, and it bewildered the citizens of this country of about 4.5 million.
Calderón, who served as president from 1990-1994, maintains he’s innocent, claiming that those funds were legitimate payment for legal services rendered while he wasn’t in office.
The 2009 guilty verdict was a huge blow to Calderón and his center-right Social Christian Unity Party. He was all set to run for president on the party’s ticket that year until the day the Supreme Court declared him an embezzler.
The court sentenced him to five years in prison but Calderón stayed out of jail pending appeals—another interesting facet of Costa Rican law.
Calderón vowed to continue challenging the accusations. After the decision last week he said he plans to bring the case to the Inter-American Human Rights Court (the Costa Rica-based judicial arm of the Organization of American States).
The ruling came just two weeks after a conviction of fellow ex-president Miguel Angel Rodríguez, also of the Social Christian Unity Party, who was sentenced to five years in prison for taking bribes from French mobile gear maker Alcatel.
Rodríguez, president from 1998 to 2002, said he would appeal the ruling but no date has been set for hearings. Rodríguez was in office at the time that the crime was perpetrated. His onetime electorate will be watching closely to see what kind of decision the appeals court makes the next time around.
*Alex Leff is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org based in San José, Costa Rica, and is a local correspondent for Reuters and GlobalPost.