Tunisia Fires Energy Top Officials in High-Profile Graft Scandal

(Bloomberg) -- Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed dismissed his energy and mines minister and four other senior officials in the country’s highest-profile corruption scandal since the first of the Arab Spring revolts toppled the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

Minister Khaled Gaddour and the State Secretary of Mines Hachem Hmidi were fired on Friday, the Government’s Presidency said in a statement. The ministry’s director general of legal affairs; the director general of fuel; and the managing director of the Tunisian Petroleum Activities Company were also relieved of their duties.

Speaking to reporters in a press conference in the capital Tunis, government spokesman Iyad Dahmani said the action was part of efforts "to protect the wealth of the Tunisian people and increase transparency and governance in the energy and mining sector."

The government has ordered Administrative and Financial Audit authorities to investigate the ministry, while a committee of experts will be set up to restructure it and revise the governance of the sector. The industry and small and medium enterprises ministry will take over the energy, mines and renewable energies portfolio.

Dahmani cited among the allegations "letting an individual use and exploit oil production without a permit." The unidentified Tunisian investor was allowed to "exploit an oilfield unlawfully," under a license that expired in 2009, Dahmani added.

Also, an Iraqi businessman had lodged an official complaint against Hmidi, accusing him of corruption and saying he had demanded a bribe to facilitate a 12 million dinar purchase of fertilizer, Dahmani said.

Hmidi, who’s has been barred from traveling abroad, denied any wrongdoing when contacted by Bloomberg News and said he can prove the accusations against him are "malicious." It wasn’t immediately possible to reach the other officials.

In 2017, Chahed announced a plan to tackle graft, a major driver of protests that triggered the North African nation’s 2010-2011 uprising.

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