BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's top court gave former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase a two year jail sentence for corruption on Monday, a landmark conviction in the graft-prone European Union country that has prosecuted few senior officials.
Nastase would be the first former prime minister to be sent to jail since the fall of communism in 1989. He remains free pending an appeal.
Prosecutors had said the state budget lost $2 million in 2004 when profits from an event organized by a state construction watchdog were used to finance Nastase's campaign for the presidency. Nastase lost the election to Traian Basescu, who is still Romania's president.
Nastase has denied any wrongdoing and blamed the prosecution on politics.
"In time it will be shown that this entire process had political motivations behind it," Nastase told a news conference. "It is an attempt to keep me sidelined from the public life."
The EU has repeatedly raised concerns about a failure to tackle corruption in Romania and neighboring Bulgaria, its two newest and poorest members which have been blocked from joining the passport-free Schengen zone over the issue.
Romania is perceived as the third most corrupt EU country after Greece and Bulgaria, according to corruption watchdog Transparency International.
ACQUITTED IN SEPARATE CASE
A keen hunter and fisherman, Nastase, 61, was a prime minister in a leftist government in 2000-2004 and remains a senior politician in the opposition USL alliance, which would stand a good chance of winning a parliamentary majority in an election, an opinion poll showed on Monday. A parliamentary election is expected in November.
Nastase was acquitted on a separate charge last month and has been indicted in a third corruption case. He denies wrongdoing in all the cases.
Romanians have staged nationwide demonstrations against the government and its austerity measures this month in protest against perceived corruption among politicians.
Some analysts say putting a senior politician behind bars sends an important signal that Romania is cracking down. But while prosecutors have convicted some lawmakers, sentences are suspended or they remain free pending a long appeal process.
"Frankly I didn't expect a former prime minister would ever be convicted in Romania. From the point of view of reforming the judiciary such moves are good signals, steps in the right direction," said political commentator Mircea Marian.
(Reporting by Radu Marinas; Editing by Sam Cage)