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

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

Kinshasa, DR Congo | 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 is 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 a social housing project.

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.

The prosecutor’s office took nearly two hours to present its case in the latest proceedings on Thursday.

– Twists and turns –

The date of the verdict is not yet known.

The televised trial, which has been held in the courtyard of the capital’s main jail, takes place in the context of a broader campaign for the “renewal” of the justice system to help root out entrenched corruption.

There have been some twists and turns, particularly after the sudden death of the presiding judge last month.

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.

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.

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