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Bulgarian court sentences populist party leader for extortion

SOFIA (Reuters) - A Bulgarian court on Monday sentenced the leader of a populist party to four years in jail for extortion, but he said he was innocent and would appeal against the verdict.

FILE PHOTO: Bulgaria's Volya President Veselin Mareshki, attends the gathering of European populist far-right leaders in Nice, France, May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Veselin Mareshki, who is also a deputy speaker of Bulgaria’s parliament, is head of the Volya party, which often backs the centre-right government in parliamentary votes and is also part of the pan-European far-right Identity and Democracy Party.

The court, in the Black Sea city of Varna, overturned a previous court ruling that had acquitted Mareshki, finding him and a Bulgarian woman guilty of threatening in 2014 to destroy the restaurant of a businessman if he did not make monthly payments of 10,000 levs ($6,070).

The woman was sentenced to tree and a half years in jail.

Mareshki, 53, the owner of a pharmacy chain and petrol filling stations, among other businesses, denies any wrongdoing and said he would appeal the verdict.

“Unfortunately at a time when our country is being accused of failing to jail corrupt politicians and oligarchs, obviously someone has decided that it is a good time to highlight my case,” he told national radio BNR.

“This is just temporary, until the Supreme Court rules (on my appeal). I have no intention of going to jail for something I did not do,” he said.

Bulgaria ranks as the most corrupt member of the European Union and is yet to jail a high-level official on graft charges.

Thousands of Bulgarians have been demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev in daily street rallies against corruption since July.

($1 = 1.6473 leva)

Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Gareth Jones