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Pair pleads guilty to bribery scheme linked to Marshall Islands investment region

Dec. 2 (UPI) -- The former heads of a New York-based non-governmental organization, who were extradited earlier this year to the United States from Thailand, have pleaded guilty to bribing Marshall Islands officials in exchange for passing legislation to benefit their business interests.

Cary Yan, 50, and Gina Zhou, 34, pleaded guilty Thursday before District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald to one count of conspiracy to violate the anti-bribery provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the Justice Department announced in a release.

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According to court documents, the pair conducted the bribery and money laundering scheme from at least the start of 2016 until August of 2020, during which they paid tens of thousands of dollars to Marshall Islands elected officials to pass legislation in support of creating the so-called Rongelap Atoll Special Administrative Region.

The plan, which the Marshall Islands legislature passed in 2020, would change laws for the Rongelap Atoll region to make it more attractive to foreign investors, including taxation and immigration laws.

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Prosecutors said Yan and Zhou intended to use the semi-autonomous region to attract investors to support their projects.

U.S. officials said Yan and Zhou were communicating and meeting with Marshall Islands officials while they were in New York working as the heads of an unnamed NGO and that they had transferred money to the Oceanic nation through the United States.

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"As they have now admitted, the defendants sought to undermine the democratic processes of the Republic of the Marshall Islands through bribery in order to advance their own financial interests," U.S. Attorney Damian Williams of the Southern District of New York said in a statement.

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"I commend the career prosecutors of this office and our law enforcement partners for bringing this corruption to light and ensuring that justice is done."

The pair were arrested in Thailand on Nov. 16, 2020, and were extradited to the United States in early September to face the charges.

A sentencing date has yet to be set. They each face a maximum penalty of five years behind bars.

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