The graft trial of a prominent DR Congo politician resumed in Kinshasa on Wednesday, a week after the sudden death of the presiding judge.
Vital Kamerhe, a key ally of President Felix Tshisekedi, appeared in court for the third time with two co-defendants during a hearing that lasted more than seven hours.
Kamerhe, accused of embezzling more than $50 million (46 million euros) in state funds from a project to build social housing, offered his condolences to the family of Judge Raphael Yanyi, who are awaiting the results of a post-mortem.
Police said last week that Yanyi had died suddenly overnight after suffering a heart attack, while pro-democracy campaigners have called for inquiries into the cause of death.
A new judge was appointed for the hearing, which took place in the courtyard of the capital’s main jail, where Kamerhe has been held in pre-trial detention since April 8.
Kamerhe, once a pillar of former president Joseph Kabila’s rule, and appointed as Tshisekedi’s chief of staff in January 2019, once again denied the charges against him.
The defendants are accused of embezzling public funds for a project to build 1,500 pre-fabricated homes for poor people, under a “100-day” action plan launched by Tshisekedi after he took office.
Kamerhe claims that he never entered a private contract with one of his co-accused, Lebanese contractor Jammal Samih.
He said he inherited a contract signed by the former Minister of Rural Development, Justin Bitakwira.
Bitakwira, meanwhile, denied having signed an amendment to a 2018 contract to bring the total cost of the project to $57 million.
Kamerhe also defended his daughter-in-law, a student in France, who was accused of having received a gift in the form of a piece of land donated by the contractor Samih.
“Neither I nor my daughter, nobody knows about this matter,” he said.
The trial has no precedent in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s recent history.
It takes place in the context of a broader campaign for the “renewal” of the justice system to help root out entrenched corruption.
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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