Congo court overturns embezzlement conviction of president's ex-chief of staff

FILE PHOTO: Vital Kamerhe, leader of the Union for the Congolese Nation party, attends a meeting with Congo's Independent National Electoral Commission and observers from the Southern African Development Community in Kinshasa
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KINSHASA (Reuters) - A court in Democratic Republic of Congo on Thursday acquitted President Felix Tshisekedi's former chief of staff of embezzlement, his lawyer said, overturning the most high-profile public corruption conviction in Congolese history.

Vital Kamerhe was convicted in 2020 of embezzling $48 million earmarked for social housing and sentenced to 20 years. That was later reduced on appeal to 13 years before Kamerhe was granted provisional release in December pending further appeals.

Transparency groups hailed the original verdict as a landmark in a country that loses billions of dollars a year to public corruption, according to government estimates, but some legal experts raised concerns about deficiencies in the prosecution's evidence.

"He has just been acquitted for lack of proof," Kamerhe's lawyer, Hugues Pulusi, told Reuters. Kamerhe's aide Michel Moto also confirmed the acquittal by the Appeals Court of Kinshasa-Gombe after Kamerhe appealed against his conviction.

Kamerhe, a veteran power broker who finished third in the 2011 presidential election, backed Tshisekedi in his successful 2018 campaign in return for Tshisekedi’s support the next time around in 2023.

His acquittal opens the door for him to run in 2023, although Tshisekedi is widely expected to stand himself for re-election.

The prosecutor has the option to appeal against the acquittal.

(Reporting by Stanis Bujakera; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Alison Williams)