An unprecedented corruption trial involving a high-ranking official in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been adjourned. Chief of staff, Vital Kamerhe, claims he is innocent of embezzling over 51 million dollars intended for social housing.
The corruption trial of Vital Kamerhe, the chief of staff of President Félix Tshisekedi, has been adjourned to 25 May at the end of a two-hour hearing. He is the most senior politician to face trial for graft in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
61-year-old Kamerhe, who has been a key political figure in the DRC for two decades, said that he is innocent of all wrongdoing.
He is accused of having siphoned away part of 500 million dollars of funds, intended to finance major works, under a 100-day action plan launched by President Tshisekedi after he took office in January 2019.
Two other defendants face similar charges: an 83-year-old Lebanese businessman, Samih Jammal, and the head of import/export at the Presidency, Jeannot Muhima Ndoole.
They also appeared during the first hearing on Monday which was broadcast live by the state channel RTNC and followed by thousands of Congolese.
The defendants are accused of embezzling almost 49 million US dollars from funds destined for building 4,500 prefabricated homes for poor people and allegedly siphoned off another 2 million dollars from a programme to build housing for police and the military in Kinshasa.
"I acted on behalf of the president to ensure that the work was carried out," said a grey-bearded Kamerhe in a prison jumpsuit.
He added that he was not alone but part of a team of nine supervisors overseeing the president's 100-day action plan.
The trial opened on Monday 11 May at Gombe Tribunal, relocated within Kinshasa's Makala Prison where Kamerhe has been in custody since 8 April.
Kamerhe, who has not stood down or been sacked since being charged, has denied the allegations, saying all public sector contracts were "inherited" from previous governments.
"I intervened on behalf of the President of the Republic to ensure that this work is carried out and that we can meet the pressing needs of the Congolese people in the sectors of education, health and roads," he told the tribunal.
Kamerhe denied knowing Samih Jammal. The prosecution argues that the two men worked together, between march 2019 and January 2020 to siphon away nearly 49 million US dollars. They risk 20 years in jail if found guilty.
As for the presidential official, Jeannot Muhima Ndoole, Kamerhe said that, even though knew him by name, it is the first time he is meeting him.
The trial has been adjourned because the defence counsels argued that Prosecution did not provide them with all the elements it was to present in court.
"We have examined hundreds of documents and interviewed politicians as well as high ranking officials. We can safely say that the 100-day Action Plan is riddled with financial irregularities," said Trésor Kibangula from the Congo Research Group.
He told RFI that there is clear cut case for embezzlement of public funds and that the name of Vital Kamerhe appears in a number of documents examined.
Kamerhe was parliament speaker from 2006 to 2009 but moved to the opposition ranks in 2011, running in elections that year.
He again stood in the 2018 presidential poll but pulled out of the race to team up with Tshisekedi.
The two leaders signed a political agreement in Nairobi in November 2018 that gave birth to a joint platform, Heading for Change, and which allowed Kamerhe to run for president in 2023.
Kamerhe's Union for the Congolese Nation has 16 seats in parliament and several ministers in Tshisekedi's coalition government.
Kibangula told RFI that President Tshisekedi killed two birds with one stone when he authorised the arrest of Kamerhe. He can now claim that he is rooting out corruption from his administration while at the same time getting rid of a political adversary in DRC's 2023 election.