Presidential Aide May Face Hard Labor in Congo Corruption Trial

(Bloomberg) --

Prosecutors in the Democratic Republic of Congo asked a court to condemn President Felix Tshisekedi’s chief of staff to 20 years of forced labor for embezzlement in a landmark corruption trial.

The state’s lawyers made the request on Thursday for the maximum penalty against Vital Kamerhe for his alleged participation in the theft of more than $50 million from infrastructure projects linked to the first 100 days of Tshisekedi’s tenure last year.

Kamerhe, 61, is one of Congo’s most powerful politicians. He ran for president in 2011 and became Tshisekedi’s chief of staff after the two men brokered an agreement two years ago that was supposed to let Kamerhe succeed him in 2023. If convicted, he would no longer be eligible to run for the office.

Presidential Aide May Face Hard Labor in Congo Corruption Trial

Kamerhe has proclaimed his innocence and said his job was to supervise the projects under orders from Tshisekedi. After a month of hearings, “no one could demonstrate the guilt of Mr. Vital Kamerhe,” he said, repeatedly calling the trial “political” in a closing statement that lasted about 25 minutes.

“I’m not the one being attacked, it’s the president of the republic and everyone can understand that,” Kamerhe said, inferring that the investigation was the work of Tshisekedi’s political opponents.

Congolese across the world have watched the hearings live from the capital, Kinshasa, through online streams and broadcasts on national television. Participants in the trial have worn masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19, which has infected more than 4,000 people in the city. Kamerhe removed his mask to give his final speech, and occasionally switched from his polished French to several other Congolese national languages.

Embezzlement, Corruption

Kamerhe is accused of embezzlement along with 78-year-old Lebanese businessman Jammal Samih and another adviser to Tshisekedi, Jeannot Muhima, 50. Samih is also accused of money laundering and corruption of a public official. Both men deny wrongdoing.

Prosecutors have asked the court to have the three men return the stolen money and pay damages and interest equal to twice the amount of embezzled funds. They also asked that Kamerhe and Muhima lose voting rights for a period of time and be stripped of the right to work for the state. Samih faces up to 20 years forced labor and expulsion from the country.

Kamerhe, from Congo’s eastern province of South Kivu, helped lead former President Joseph Kabila’s first presidential campaign in 2006, after which he became president of the National Assembly. Kamerhe broke with Kabila over the latter’s handling of the conflict in eastern Congo in 2009. He then ran for president against his former boss in 2011, finishing third.

The court will deliver its judgment June 20.

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