DR Congo seeks 20-year jail term for top aide in graft trial

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Vital Kamerhe has been a powerful player on DR Congo's political scene for two decades

Vital Kamerhe has been a powerful player on DR Congo's political scene for two decades (AFP Photo/FEDERICO SCOPPA)

Kinshasa (AFP) - Prosecutors in DR Congo said on Thursday they are seeking a 20-year prison sentence for a key ally of President Felix Tshisekedi who is accused of embezzling more than $50 million.

The prosecution is also asking that Vital Kamerhe be disqualified from holding public office for 10 years, and has requested the seizure of his wife's assets as well as those of other family members.

The high-profile graft trial of Kamerhe, a veteran political figure who remains the president's chief of staff, is without precedent in the vast African country.

Kamerhe, who has been detained since April 8, and two co-defendants are accused of embezzling state funds to build 1,500 pre-fabricated homes for soldiers.

A 20-year prison sentence was also sought against one of Kamerhe's co-accused, Lebanese contractor Jammal Samih, 78, who would be deported at the end of his sentence.

All three men claimed they were innnocent, with Kamerhe denouncing the trial as political and accusing the court of "brutality" towards him.

"True justice will come from God," Kamerhe said, adding he had warned his wife prior to the hearing that "the die is cast" regarding his fate.

The prosecutor's office, which took nearly two hours to present its case, upheld a money laundering charge against both defendants and requested an additional sentence for "aggravated corruption", though it said the total prison term should not exceed 20 years.

Prosecutors said that Kamerhe and his wife, who married in February 2019, had acquired and renovated a mansion in France for more than one million euros ($1.1 million).

- Twists and turns -

Kamerhe's Paris-based lawyers said that the sentence was unconstitutional, and announced that they had referred the matter to the United Nations' Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

"The proceedings mention the embezzlement of public money. But there is no evidence of any illicit financial flows," Jean-Marie Kabengela and Pierre-Olivier Sur wrote in a statement.

The two lawyers also said that Kamerhe's safety was in danger in the jail where he was being held, following rumours that he was responsible for the sudden death of the trial's presiding judge last month.

Police said Judge Raphael Yanyi died from a heart attack, and the results of an autopsy are still pending.

The death was just one of several twists and turns in an unprecedented televised trial, which has been held in the courtyard of the capital’s main jail.

It takes place in the context of a broader campaign for the "renewal" of the justice system to help root out entrenched corruption.

In hearings last week that ran to almost 13 hours, Kamerhe, 61, insisted that he never entered a private contract with Samih.

He claimed that nothing was done "without the knowledge" of Tshisekedi and insisted he was not in office when the contract at the centre of the allegations was signed in 2018.

A government adviser called by the prosecution during the hearing slammed Kamerhe's comments as an insult to the president.

- Next presidential election -

The verdict is scheduled to be delivered on June 20 and would be televised live, the court's presiding judge announced late Thursday.

Originally from South Kivu province, Kamerhe has been a central figure in DR Congo political life since the 2000s.

Once a pillar of former president Joseph Kabila's rule, Kamerhe initially stood in the 2018 presidential poll but bowed out to team up with Tshisekedi, who took office in January 2019 in the first ever peaceful transfer of power in the country.

Kamerhe's supporters charge that the case is politically motivated -- they portray it as a likely attempt to prevent him from running in the next presidential election in three years' time.

The biggest country in sub-Saharan Africa, DR Congo has an abundance of natural resources, but two-thirds of its 80 million people live in poverty.

The country struggles with a long history of conflict, poor governance and graft.