A powerful senior official of the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, was tried on Monday for corruption in an unprecedented case in the country.
Tshisekedi’s chief of staff, Vital Kamerhe, who has been at the heart of political life in DR Congo for two decades, is accused of having embezzled more than $ 50 million.
A gray-bearded Kamerhe, 61, appeared in a prison jumpsuit before a court on the grounds of Kinshasa central prison, where he has been detained since April 8.
Two other defendants in the case, a Lebanese businessman and another presidential official, also appeared during the first hearing which was broadcast by the public channel RTNC.
Supporters of Kamerhe say the case is politically motivated, a possible attempt to prevent him from running in the next presidential election in three years.
“Never in the political history of the Congo in the past two decades has such an important player on the political scene been put behind bars,” said the Congo Study Group (CSG) of New York University. in an analysis.
The case against Kamerhe is part of a vast investigation supposed to mark the “renewal” of the Congolese judicial system in the fight against corruption among the elite since the independence of the country in 1960.
Kamerhe, who was once a pillar of the regime of former President Joseph Kabila, is the leader of the Influential Union for the Congolese Nation and was previously Speaker of the Parliament.
He emerged as Tshisekedi’s main ally in his quest for power after Kamerhe himself withdrew from the presidential race in December 2018, the first peaceful transfer of power in the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
100-day action plan
Kamerhe, who is said to have been responsible for authorizing public spending, is accused of having diverted public funds intended to finance major works within the framework of an emergency action plan “100 days” launched by Tshisekedi after his taking office in January of last year.
The accused are accused of embezzling nearly $ 49 million in funds for the construction of 4,500 prefabricated homes for the poor and allegedly embezzled an additional $ 2 million from a police and military housing program in Kinshasa.
Kamerhe, who has not resigned or been dismissed since his indictment, denied the allegations against him, claiming that all public sector contracts were “inherited” from previous governments.
Although Kamerhe’s arrest is seen as a strong signal in the fight against transplants, some remain skeptical, considering the case as a possible settling of scores within the ruling coalition.
Kamerhe party MPs denounced “arbitrary arrest” and “humiliation” suffered by their leader on social networks, supporters say it is an attempt to remove him from the 2023 presidential race despite an agreement with Tshisekedi.
Kamerhe’s lawyers said on Monday that they had made a request for provisional release after another request was denied last month.
The trial was originally scheduled to be held at the Kinshasa High Court, but was later transferred to the prison complex where Kamerhe has been held for more than a month.
The accused, judges and lawyers wore masks during the hearing, while the official toll of coronavirus cases in the country exceeded 1,000, including 41 deaths, with a major epidemic in a prison in the capital .
Overcrowding in DR Congo Prisons Threatens Covid-19
The session was briefly suspended after the co-accused of Kamerhe, the 79-year-old Lebanese businessman, Samih Jammal, appears to have passed out in his wheelchair as he breathlessly confirmed his identity at court.
The largest country in sub-Saharan Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has abundance of natural resources, but most of its 80 million people live below the poverty line.
The country is grappling with a long history of conflict, poor governance and corruption.
Kamerhe was President of the National Assembly from 2006 to 2009, but joined the opposition in 2011, standing for election that year.
He initially ran in the 2018 presidential election, but retired to team up with Tshisekedi.
The two leaders signed a political agreement in Nairobi in November 2018 that spawned a common platform, Heading for Change, and which enabled Kamerhe to run for president in 2023.
The Kamerhe UNC has 16 seats in Parliament and several ministers in the huge Tshisekedi coalition government.