Iran has sentenced one of its richest oil tycoons to death for corruption

An Iranian court has issued a death sentence against an Iranian oil tycoon, a judiciary spokesman told reporters Sunday, in a case widely portrayed as a symbol of corruption during the administration of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Babak Zanjani, 41, one of Iran’s wealthiest businessmen, was sentenced to death along with two other defendants, a judiciary spokesman told the state media here.

Zanjani, with a reported estimated net worth of $14 billion, had previously been blacklisted by both the United States and the European Union for helping Iran sell oil in violation of international sanctions.

In 2013, the U.S. Treasury Dept. accused Zanjani of being involved in a multibillion dollar scheme to launder cash in a sanctions-busting maneuver. Those allegations came before last year's deal between Iran and world powers that ended most nuclear-related sanctions in exchange for constraints on Tehran’s nuclear program.

But Zanjani also faced domestic charges. Iranian authorities arrested the businessman in December 2013 and charged him with misappropriation of some $2 billion from Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum. Zanjani was accused of skimming oil profits.

Authorities said the death sentence could be reversed if Zanjani repays the pilfered proceeds. Zanjani’s lawyer has protested that a bank has refused to accept Zanjani’s offer of payments, according to reports here.

Zanjani has 20 days to appeal the sentence, authorities said.

Authorities here have prosecuted other instances of corruption, but death sentences in such cases are relatively rare.

The severity of the punishment suggests that the case is viewed in part as a warning to other entrepreneurs as Iran’s economy opens up in the post-sanctions era. Many investors here are anticipating a bonanza as international funds pour into the country.

Twenty years ago, in 1996, Fazel Khodadad, a prominent businessman, was hanged after being convicted in a $400-million embezzlement scheme linked to a state-owned bank. That appeared to be the last death sentence issued in a corruption case.

The administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has assailed what it has termed widespread economic corruption and mismanagement under the government of his predecessor, Ahmadinejad, who served as Iran’s president from 2005 to 2013. The Zanjani case has been held up as a prime example of how shady entrepreneurs with ties to the government were able to enrich themselves during Ahmadinejad’s eight-year rule.

Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut.

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