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South side lobbyist gets 15 months for illegally representing president of Zimbabwe

A former South Sider who illegally lobbied black Chicago politicians to end U.S. sanctions against Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was on Tuesday sentenced to 15 months in federal prison.

But C. Gregory Turner went down swinging, delivering a defiant speech in which he offered few regrets, describing himself as a Pan-Africanist who was “exercising my right to support the development of Africa without being considered a criminal.”

Turner, a 72-year-old grandfather of 14, was convicted at a jury trial in October of illegally working to end sanctions designed to end human-rights abuses by Mugabe’s controversial ruling elite. Without registering as a “foreign agent” as the law requires, he attempted in 2008 to use politicians, including U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, to open up a back channel to President Obama. But the scheme failed when the White House alerted the FBI.

Turner claimed he was motivated by political and humanitarian goals, arguing the sanctions were hurting ordinary Zimbabwean people. Prosecutors, though, painted him as motivated primarily by greed.

He and his co-defendant, Prince Asiel Ben Israel, hoped to score millions of dollars in lobbying fees from Mugabe and also tried to seize control of Zimbabwean gold and diamond mines, assistant U.S. Attorneys Barry Jonas and Georgia Alexakis said.

“He was, to put it generously, an entrepreneur in Africa,” Jonas told U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo. “He was looking for a payday.”

The lobbying efforts Turner made, involving politicians including U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, state Rep. Ken Dunkin and state Sen. Donne Trotter, “undercut the efforts of the U.S. government” to end human-rights abuses in Zimbabwe, he added.

Alexakis added that the government was unable to verify humanitarian work Turner claimed he had done in Africa on behalf of a group backed by the Kellogg Foundation. The Foundation cut its funding to the group after it failed an audit and was found to have links to “suspicious” groups in Africa, and though Turner described himself as the group’s “managing director,” the Kellogg Foundation had never heard of him, she said.

But defense attorney James Tunnick said that Turner was just a “poor man living in South Shore — he doesn’t even have a car and he’s living on Social Security.”

And in a wide-ranging speech — Turner referenced Martin Luther King Jr., recent disturbances in Ferguson, Mo., chronic unemployment in parts of the African-American community and the history of the Pan-Africanist movement — he made no apologies for what he said was his life’s work: helping Africa.

“Most African-Americans over the age of 50 have been told to ‘Go back to Africa,’ ” he said. “I did exactly that . . . I’m proud of what I’ve done.”

“I believe that I have a right to petition the government of [my] country on behalf of my African brothers and sisters,” he said. “I never believed I had to register.”

He said he hoped his efforts to open up Zimbabwe would lead to employment opportunities in Chicago. “Kids in Englewood could roast coffee beans for Starbucks or polish diamonds like anyone else,” he said.

Turner had asked for probation but smiled after he was handed the 15-month sentence, which was within the range prosecutors had requested.

Bucklo told him that in spite of his lack of repentance, he had taken a decision to “flaunt” policies that were designed “so that one African country can develop better.”

Ben Israel, who pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, was last year sentenced to seven months in prison.

Both men are tied to the of Hebrew Israelite black-Jewish movement, and Turner last year returned to the U.S. from his home in Israel to stand trial.

He plans to appeal his conviction, he said.