by Charles Rusnell,
Canwest News Service

GUADALAJARA, Mexico - Canadian Brenda Martin has been found guilty by a Mexican judge of accepting funds from an Internet scam and sentenced to five years in prison.

In a brief ruling issued Tuesday afternoon, Judge Luis Nunez Sandoval said Martin is guilty of the charge of accepting illicit funds. She was also fined 35,850 pesos - about $3,400 Cdn.

But Sandoval issued a warning to the prosecution. He said that if they attempt to appeal Martin's sentence, "she may return in a casket to her home," according to a Canwest News Service/Global translator.

Martin's mother, Marjorie Bletcher, said she was horrified by the ruling.

"This is awful. This is probably going to kill her. I might not ever see her again," she said.

"I know she's not guilty and I guess it's all to save face. I just have to pray that she's going to be OK because I mean, this has got to be devastating for her. I mean, to know that you are innocent and to get this verdict . . . this is crazy. I guess Mexico's going to make her pay."

Outside the court, Martin's lawyer, Guillermo Cruz Rico of Toronto, said she was shocked by the judge's ruling.

He said he was with Martin when she received the news and she collapsed and began to scream.

Cruz said Martin has threatened to kill herself.

Bletcher expressed the fear that the ruling might worsen Martin's fragile mental state.

"She's in such a fragile state that I'm afraid this might just take her over the edge," she said. "Bring her back right away. She needs help.

"Brenda, I'm so sorry this happened to you. I know you're innocent. I guess if I'd had money . . . Or maybe we'd had a proper lawyer, this might not have happened. There is so much corruption in Mexico."

Deb Tieleman, Martin's childhood friend and advocate, immediately began to yell after the decision was read.

"This is incredible," she shouted. "There is no justice in this country.

"There was never any evidence against Brenda Martin."

Jeff Marder, a spokesman for the Canadian embassy in Mexico City, said the Canadian government would issue a statement about Martin very soon. It is believed Ottawa will announce that Martin will be transferred home to Canada as soon as possible, possibly under an agreement with Martin that would reduce her sentence based on time served.

Martin's legal nightmare began on Feb. 17, 2006. She had arranged to meet a potential client who wanted her to cater a birthday party for his mother.

They met on a Puerto Vallarta street near her apartment. The client turned out to be an undercover police officer. He grabbed her by the wrist and several other Mexican federal police officers suddenly appeared. She was placed in a waiting vehicle.

She was eventually charged with knowingly accepting illicit funds from a scam run by her former boss, Alyn Waage.

Waage, a former Edmonton resident, masterminded what's believed to be the largest Internet-based fraud scheme in history, bilking 15,000 investors in 59 countries out of about $60 million.

Martin worked as a chef for Waage for 10 months until he fired her in early 2001 for insulting his elderly mother. He paid her $26,000 in severance pay and, without his knowledge, she invested about $10,000 into what she believed was his legitimate investment business. After Waage's arrest in April 2001, she asked him to return her investment and he complied.

The bank-account evidence of the severance pay and the investment became the prosecution's principal piece of evidence against Martin. In fact, the prosecution conceded it had no direct evidence against Martin, but insisted it had enough circumstantial evidence to "infer" that she should have known the money she obtained from Waage came from the proceeds of his crime.

Martin always maintained she knew nothing of her employer's criminal scheme and Waage swore an affidavit in support.

A series of lawyers hired by friends and family, and a public defender provided by the Mexican government, all made promises to free Martin. But for nearly two years, none delivered.

Martin became increasingly frustrated and depressed because she could never understand what was happening with her case. And the judge in her case set repeated deadlines that were subsequently changed.

Tieleman, learned about Martin's plight in September 2007 and immediately started a public campaign to free her.

She hired Cruz Rico and publicly criticized the Canadian government's lack of effort on Martin's case.

Cruz reviewed Martin's file and concluded there was no evidence to support the charge against her. He learned she had not been provided with an interpreter, either by police or the courts - a breach of both Mexican and international law.

The file also revealed that no one from the Canadian consulate in Guadalajara had asked to review Martin's file until she had been imprisoned for nearly 18 months.

The revelations caused a media firestorm and Martin's story figured prominently in the news for weeks after.

A constitutional challenge based on the violation of Martin's rights failed and Martin, physically weak and mentally ill, was placed on a suicide watch.

Responding to public pressure, Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier sent a diplomatic note to Mexico on March 11, raising concerns about Martin's rights.

Bernier also removed junior minister Helena Guergis from the file, replacing her with MP Jason Kenney.

After Martin's lawyer filed her defence earlier this month, the Mexican judge said he would try to issue a ruling by April 18. That deadline, however, was pushed back to Wednesday.