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NEW YORK - Thousands of people who lost their life savings in a multi-billion dollar scam will discover on Monday the fate of Wall Street swindler Bernard Madoff, who at 71 could face a 150-year jail term.

Madoff's fall from grace since his shock arrest in December will be complete when he returns to a New York courtroom on Monday for sentencing after pleading guilty to one of the biggest, most complex financial scams in history.

Once the darling of the markets who was believed to have the Midas touch, the former chairman of the Nasdaq now languishes in a tiny prison cell after admitting to 11 charges of fraud, perjury and theft in March.

Among his victims were Hollywood celebrities, international movers and shakers, some of the world's most famous banks and even Jewish charities, many of which were forced to close after Madoff's scheme evaporated in a puff of smoke.

But many of his investors were also ordinary, elderly retirees who thought their life savings were in safe hands, and now face financial ruin.

Madoff told the court in March that of the billions of dollars which passed through his hands during his three-decade scam he never invested one cent in the market. Instead he stashed the funds in a Chase Manhattan bank account.

The funds were then used to pay out "dividends" to investors in what is known as a "Ponzi scheme".

Prosecutors say about 13 billion dollars was handed to Madoff. The financier himself has talked about losing some 50 billion dollars, which is believed to be the amount that would have been paid out had the funds been properly invested.

The sums were shockingly large - bigger than the gross domestic product of countries such as Luxembourg, and more than the external debt of several poor African nations.

On Monday, several selected victims will be allowed to address judge Denny Chin and say what they believe Madoff's fate should be.

Earlier this month, some 113 victims flooded Chin with letters and emails and almost all in no uncertain terms called for a life prison term, with some going even further.

"Please make sure the facility in which he rots is extremely uncomfortable," wrote Jesse Cohen, a businessman from New Jersey, who lost all his savings.

Summarizing the views of many, Ron Weinstein, 62, wrote: "This scum should never again see the light of day."

In total, Chin could sentence Madoff to a maximum of 150 years. But Madoff's lawyers have said the former financier should receive only 12 years or less, arguing that at 71 he only has a life expectancy of about 13 years.

Attorney Ira Sorkin told the judge in a letter that any sentence longer than 12 years would constitute "an effective life sentence."

And given the complex nature of the fraud, prosecutors say they are not yet able to say exactly how much money was lost and how much each of the victims should be reimbursed.

Instead, they have asked for a further three months after which "the court will order restitution or find that restitution is impracticable."

Madoff also faces other civil lawsuits against him.

The house of cards carefully constructed by Madoff came crashing down in December amid the turmoil of the economic recession, the worst to hit the United States since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

With Madoff no longer able to pay out either the interest or the capital which his clients expected, he had no choice but to come clean.

He called together his two sons, who worked legally with him, and confessed he was "finished." It was his sons, Mark and Andrew, who the next day December 11, called in the police.

But as the global reach of his network continues to unravel, more questions than answers remain.

Only a few other people have been charged in the affair, and many are skeptical that Madoff could have run such a complex scheme virtually alone.

And tracking down the missing funds has proved frustratingly slow.

So far the court-appointed liquidator Irving Picard has only managed to recover about a billion dollars by seizing Madoff's possessions such as his houses in Palm Beach, Florida and France, yachts, jewels and other goods.

Picard has said Madoff has refused to cooperate with investigators to locate assets that could be used to partially reimburse his victims, with some 8,848 claims outstanding against Madoff's firm.

And some victims say they may even try to sue the Securities and Exchange Commission for negligence in a bid to recover some funds, after years of warnings about Madoff's scheme appeared to go unheeded.

- AFP/ir


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