Algeria finance minister questioned in fraud probe

An Algerian protester holds sign that reads "My country is drowning in a sea of corruption" (AFP Photo/STRINGER) (AFP/File)
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Algiers (AFP) - Algerian Finance Minister Mohamed Loukal was released after state TV said he was questioned Monday by a prosector on suspicion of "squandering" public funds.

The former central bank governor is the first government official to appear before prosecutors since mass protests erupted in February against Abdelaziz Bouteflika's two-decade rule.

State television said he was questioned as part of a wider crackdown following Bouteflika's fall earlier this month.

Former police chief Abdelghani Hamel was also questioned separately by a prosecutor as part of a judicial inquiry into alleged bribery, Algerian media said.

Since Bouteflika stepped down in the face of growing anger on the streets, several regime officials and businessmen close to him have been sacked, detained or questioned over alleged graft.

Loukal was appointed finance minister at the end of March when Bouteflika, facing massive pressure from demonstrators demanding change, named a new prime minister.

He was seen leaving a court in Algiers afterwards and was whisked away in a black car without making a statement.

Around a dozen people were gathered outside chanting: "Thieves, you looted the country!" -- one of the slogans of the protest movement.

A week ago, Loukal and former premier Ahmed Ouyahia were summoned for questioning.

State television said Loukal was being questioned in cases concerning "misuse of public funds and undue advantages", but did not elaborate.

It was not possible to establish immediately if Loukal was questioned as a suspect or witness.

When contacted by AFP, Loukal refused to comment on the matter.

Hamel -- once tipped as Bouteflika's successor before he was fired by the veteran leader in June 2018 -- appeared in a court in Tipaza, west of Algiers, before being released, the official APS news agency said.

State TV said he appeared alongside one of his sons, but APS said Hamel appeared alone.

No charge was brought against Hamel in this first session, with hearings set to continue over the coming days, a judicial source told APS.

State television had said Hamel and his son were being interrogated as part of a probe into "illegal activity, bribery, embezzlement of funds and abuse of power".

Since Bouteflika's ouster, investigators have cracked down on alleged graft, zeroing in on the activities of prominent politicians and businessmen following two decades of cronyism under the former president.

High-profile figures targeted in the past week include the North African country's richest man, Issad Rebrab, who was reportedly detained on allegations of false customs declarations.

The head of the vast state oil firm Sonatrach, Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour, has been fired and replaced on the orders of interim president Abdelkader Bensalah.

Four brothers from the influential Kouninef family, close to Bouteflika's brother Said, have been arrested over alleged non-compliance with state contracts, according to official media.

After pushing Bouteflika to quit with mass demonstrations launched on February 22, protesters have kept up their rallies, calling for a complete overhaul of Algeria's political system, improved living standards and the eradication of corruption.

Algeria ranks 105 out of 180 on Transparency International's 2018 corruption perceptions index.

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