Kinshasa, DR Congo | AFP | Vital Kamerhe, a major ally to DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, proclaimed his innocence on Monday as a historic trial for alleged corruption resumed.
Kamerhe, 61, a veteran political figure who is also Tshisekedi’s chief of staff, is accused with others of having embezzled more than $50 million (46 million euros).
Detained on April 8, Kamerhe took the stand to request bail after the high-profile proceedings resumed following a two-week break.
“I want someone to help me understand why I am in Makala,” he said, referring to the main jail in the DR Congo capital Kinshasa.
Kamerhe said he was fighting to “cleanse” his tarnished honour and that of his children, and insisted he had not been in office when the contracts at the centre of the allegations had been signed in April 2018.
The trial, which is being broadcast live by the national TV channel RNTC, is taking place in Makala itself and Kamerhe and co-defendant Jammal Samih wore a yellow-and-blue prison shirt.
Kamerhe was once a pillar of the regime of former president Joseph Kabila, serving as parliament speaker from 2006 to 2009 before he moved to the opposition ranks in 2011, running in elections that year.
As head of the influential Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC) party, he initially stood in the 2018 presidential poll but bowed out to team up with Tshisekedi.
The UNC has 16 seats in parliament and several ministers in Tshisekedi’s huge coalition government.
The defendants are accused of embezzling almost $49 million from funds for building 4,500 pre-fabricated homes for poor people and of creaming off another $2 million from a programme to build housing for police and the military.
Samih, a prominent 78-year-old Lebanese businessman who owns the construction company Samibo, also said he was innocent of any charges.
He noted that he had lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo for 52 years and been Lebanon’s “honorary consul” in the pre-1997 times when the DRC was known as Zaire.
Kamerhe, appointed as chief of staff in January 2019, has not quit or been fired since his arrest. An interim replacement has been appointed in the meantime.
His two previous requests for bail have been rejected.
The case coincides with a broader campaign for the “renewal” of the Congolese justice system in the fight against entrenched corruption among the elite.
“Never in Congo’s political history over the past two decades has such an important player on the political scene been put behind bars,” New York University’s Congo Study Group (CSG) said in an analysis.
Kamerhe’s supporters charge 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.