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Belgrade, Serbia • A Serbian court sentenced one of the richest businessmen in the Balkans to five years in prison for tax evasion Monday in a trial that the government sees as a major effort to curb corruption as it seeks European Union membership.
Miroslav Miskovic, who was also fined 65,000 euros, was once among the most influential people in Serbia, with close political ties.
He was found guilty by the anti-graft court for helping his son Marko evade paying some $3.4 million in taxes linked to his road construction business.
Marko Miskovic has already been sentenced to 3½ years for the same offense.
Miskovic, 70, created a business empire under the rule of strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, and expanded it after Milosevic's ouster in 2000. In 2007, his wealth was estimated at $2 billion but is believed to have grown since.
He is the owner of Delta Holding, one of the biggest companies in the region. The company has retail, real estate, insurance and agriculture businesses in Serbia and the rest of the Balkans.
When Miskovic was arrested in December 2012, populist Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said it demonstrated that no one was untouchable in the anti-corruption sweep. Serbia has been told it must fight graft to move closer to EU membership.
Miskovic was released from detention months later after posting a record 12 million-euro bail.
The businessman denies the charges and his lawyer Zdenko Tomanovic said the trial suffered under strong political pressure.
"The verdict shows that Serbia has far from an independent judiciary," Tomanovic said after the verdict, adding that it is absurd that Miskovic received a higher sentence than his son, although he was allegedly only helping the son evade taxes.
"The verdict is not the result of evidence, but lack of courage" by the court, Tomanovic said.
He said the lawyers will appeal. Miskovic did not attend the Monday court verdict.
Miskovic's company issued a statement saying he has been denied a fair trial.
"At a time when Serbia is negotiating the justice and rule of law chapters of its accession treaty to the European Union, the consequences of such a blatant miscarriage of justice may affect the European integration of Serbia, to which Mr. Miskovic is personally committed," Delta Holding said.