March 11 (UPI) -- A group of men who posed as a French defense minister to convince wealthy individuals to pay for fake government operations were sentenced to prison by a court in Paris on Wednesday.
The six men were convicted of fraud while Gilbert Chickli, 54, and Anthony Lasarevitsch, 35, who were considered the masterminds behind the scheme, were sentenced to 11 years and seven years in prison, respectively. Chickli was also fined $2.3 million while Lasarevitsch was fined $1.1 million.
"It's a scandal. You should be ashamed," Chickli said after the verdict was delivered.
Four other men convicted for varying levels of involvement in the scheme were sentenced to between 15 months and five years in prison and fined $45,000- $112,500. A fifth man was found not guilty.
Prosecutors said the men impersonated Jean-Yves Le Drian, who served as France's defense minister from 2012 to 2017. In phone calls and video calls they used a silicone mask and a recreation of Le Drian's office to encourage targets to pay millions of dollars, saying France was negotiating hostage releases in Syria and could not publicly use tax funds to pay the ransoms.
They also impersonated Le Drian's aides and sent follow-up phone calls and emails designed to appear like official Defense Ministry communications in addition to setting up fake appointments with the minister and sending fake documents alleging the money was being reimbursed.
Many of the groups of more than 150 targets identified the scam and contacted the Defense Ministry but three people including a Muslim spiritual leader, the owner of a wine estate and a Turkish businessman fell for the scheme and wired the men more than $70 million.
Some transfers were blocked after victims became aware of the scam and the court awarded millions of dollars to some of the victims but $50 million moved between shell accounts was not recovered.