Algeria jails two ex-premiers for graft

Monday December 9 2019

Algerians protest in the capital Algiers on

Algerians protest in the capital Algiers on December 10, 2019 against presidential elections scheduled for December 12. The protesters, whose mass mobilisation forced former President Abdelaziz BouteflikaA to resign in April after two decades in power want constitutional reforms to come ahead of any vote. PHOTO | RYAD KRAMDI | AFP 

AFP
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Two Algeria ex-PMs get heavy jail terms in graft trial

An Algerian court on Tuesday sentenced two former prime ministers to long jail terms in the first of a string of high-profile corruption trials launched after long-time

president Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned in the face of mass protests in April.

Ahmed Ouyahia was sentenced to 15 years and Abdelmalek Sellal to 12, the state-run APS news agency said, against 20 years that the prosecution had recommended.

It was the first time since Algeria's independence in 1962 that former prime ministers had been put on trial.

In all, 19 defendants were tried on charges ranging from money laundering to abuse of office and granting undue privileges in the vehicle assembly industry.

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The nascent Algerian automotive sector got its start in 2014, via partnerships between foreign groups and large Algerian corporations, often owned by businessmen linked to Bouteflika's entourage.

One former industry minister, Abdeslam Bouchouareb, who is on the run abroad, was sentenced in absentia to 20 years.

Two other former industry ministers, Mahdjoub Bedda and Youcef Yousfi, were handed 10-year terms.

Businessman Ali Haddad, founder and CEO of private construction firm ETRHB and former head of Algeria's main employers' organisation, was sentenced to seven years.
Three businessmen who own vehicle assembly plants - Ahmed Mazouz, Hassen Arbaoui and Mohamed Bairi - were sentenced to seven years, six years and three years respectively.

Defence lawyers boycotted the trial, alleging the proceedings are "politicised" and surrounded by a climate of "settling scores".

The state prosecutor has also demanded that the property of the defendants be seized, and called for an international arrest warrant to be issued against Bouchouareb.

Ouyahia was accused of "misappropriation of public funds, abuse of office, granting undue privileges, conflict of interest, corruption, money laundering and false statements".

He was charged with favouring certain manufacturers in the automotive sector - even if they did not fulfil brief specifications - to the detriment of competitors.
"There is no misappropriation (of public funds) and the choice... was based on the market. These manufacturers were already present and we wanted to keep them", the former prime minister said in his defence.
Former ministers Bedda Mahdjoub (industry and mines), Youcef Yousfi, who succeeded him in the post, and Abdelghani Zaalane (public works and transport) were other defendants in the case.
Also standing trial was Ali Haddad, former head of the main Algerian employer organisation, the Forum of Business Leaders (FCE).
The 54-year-old businessman is also the founder and CEO of private construction firm ETRHB.
Among the other businessmen sentenced was former FCE vice president Mohamed Bairi, CEO of the Ival group, which owns industrial vehicle plant Iveco.

Mazouz was president of the eponymous group that assembles and distributes Chinese-brand vehicles in Algeria, and Arbaoui was head of Global Group which runs an Algerian factory for South Korean company Kia.

Elections

The verdicts come just two days before Algeria is due to elect a president to replace Bouteflika in a vote bitterly opposed by the country's nine-month-old protest movement, which sees it as a regime ploy to cling to power.
While no opinion polls have been published, observers expect high levels of abstention, in keeping with previous elections in a political system seen by voters as rigid and unaccountable.

Protesters are demanding the total dismantling of the military-dominated system that has ruled Algeria since independence.

Many fear the trials are little more than a high-level purge in a struggle between still-powerful regime insiders, rather than a genuine effort to reform the state.

The military high command, which has long wielded power from behind the scene but is now on the frontline, has rejected the demands of protesters and civil society for sweeping reforms including replacing the constitution that served to legitimise Bouteflika's grip on power.
Instead, the army has pushed for a swift election to pick a replacement for Bouteflika, saying it is the only route to resolving the political crisis.
While no opinion polls have been published, observers expect high levels of abstention, in keeping with previous elections in a political system seen by voters as rigid and unaccountable.
The five candidates in the poll have run low-key campaigns.
All are considered "children of the system", having either supported Bouteflika or participated in his government, two as ministers and two as prime ministers.
Protesters accuse them of protecting the regime by standing for election.

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