ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Two former prime ministers of Algeria were convicted and sentenced to prison Tuesday for corruption-related charges in a landmark trial, unleashing cheers of joy from pro-democracy activists who want an overhaul of the gas-rich country's political system.
The verdict came amid high political tensions just two days before a controversial presidential election to replace President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, pushed out of office in April after 20 years in power.
Protesters gathered outside and inside the courthouse in Algiers Tuesday to hear the verdict against Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, some shouting "Gang of gangsters!” and many waving or wearing Algerian flags. Police surrounded the courthouse.
Ouyahia was sentenced to 15 years in prison and $16,000 in fines. Sellal was sentenced to 12 years in prison and $8,000 in fines. The men, who deny wrongdoing, have 10 days to appeal.
Both served under Bouteflika. Protesters rose up against Bouteflika earlier this year — in part because of anger at corruption.
Four other former government ministers and businessmen were also convicted in the case, which focused on a car manufacturing corruption scandal, allegedly involving huge bribes, inflated invoices and dodgy loans. Bouteflika's former campaign manager was acquitted.
Unusually, the trial was televised, as authorities sought to show the public that they are taking protesters’ concerns about corruption, transparency and accountability seriously.
Thursday’s presidential election loomed over the trial. Algerian authorities are hoping the trial will help convince the public that they are serious about reforming themselves — and persuade people to go out and vote.
Algeria’s peaceful, 9-month-old protest movement dismisses the election as a sham because it’s organized by the existing power structure. Protesters want a whole new political system instead.
“It's a historic trial,” law professor Rachid Lerari told The Associated Press. “Future leaders will think twice before using public money” for private gain.