San Jose: Ex-president Rafael Calderon has dropped out of Costa Rica`s presidential race after a judge sentenced him to five years in prison for corruption in the first such trial of an ex-head of state here.
Calderon, 60, leader of the opposition Social Christian Unity Party who was president from 1990-1994, maintains he is innocent, and had planned to stand for president again in the February 2010 election.
After an 11-month trial, Judge Alejandro Lopez McAdam sentenced Calderon to five years behind bars for embezzlement, but rejected the prosecutor`s call for Calderon to be detained immediately pending his expected appeals.
"This sentence has truly surprised me," Calderon said on hearing the ruling. "Without my being a career government employee I have been convicted of a crime that is supposed to be one committed by a career government employee.
"They were supposed to prove that I am guilty; I am not supposed to be proving my innocence," Calderon said.
"I cannot remain a presidential candidate" in next year`s race, he added.
The court also handed down jail terms to another seven people charged with taking kickbacks for the purchase of almost 40 million dollars in medical equipment by the state health care system from Finnish firm Instrumentarium Medko Medical.
Calderon and his co-accused also were ordered to pay the equivalent of almost 700,000 dollars in damages to the state, said another judge in the case, Franz Paniagua.
Prosecutors had sought 24 years in jail for the former president. Calderon spent five months in detention when the scandal broke out in 2004.
Both Calderon and the former health care director Eliseo Vargas were handed five-year terms for embezzlement.
Though Calderon`s legal fate was an ignominious first, his corruption trial will not be the last for an ex-president in this Central American nation.
Miguel Angel Rodriguez, who was president from 1998-2002, faces trial in another kickbacks case that forced him to step aside as chief of the Organization of American States.
"Court sentences should be respected and complied with, but not commented on," said another former president, Nobel peace laureate Oscar Arias.
"This decision is the product of reflection by people whose job it is to apply the law... Like any Costa Rican, I respect that authority," he added.