By Stanis Bujakera
KINSHASA (Reuters) - The Democratic Republic of Congo's high court on Saturday found the president's chief of staff guilty of embezzling $48 million in public funds and sentenced him to 20 years in jail, the lead judge said.
Vital Kamerhe, once a future presidential hopeful, is the most senior politician convicted of graft in Congo, where high-level corruption is endemic. He now faces 20 years of hard labour.
"The court has established as fact the offence of embezzlement of public funds relating to the amount of $48,831,148," said presiding judge Pierrot Bankenge Mvita wearing a mask and rubber gloves.
Kamerhe denies stealing money earmarked for social housing under President Felix Tshisekedi’s flagship 100-day building programme, and has dismissed the accusations as political. His lawyer, Jean Marie Kabengela Ilunga, called the verdict a "violation of human rights" and said he would appeal.
Kamerhe, a veteran power broker, appeared at the three-hour outdoor court hearing in a blue and yellow prison jacket and also wore a mask to protect against the new coronavirus.
He backed Tshisekedi in his successful 2018 election campaign in return for Tshisekedi’s support the next time around in 2023. Under the ruling, Kamerhe will not be able to run for president for ten years after his punishment.
His arrest on April 8 sent shock waves through the nation.
Last week the justice minister revealed that the former presiding judge, who was originally said to have died of a heart attack last month, was actually brutally murdered.
Transparency groups and the international community had been pressurising Tshisekedi to fulfil his campaign promise of clamping down on corruption, political analysts say.
"I sincerely think that this is a positive sign for the fight against corruption," said Florimond Muteba from the Observatory of Public Expenditure, a Congolese transparency group.
(Writing by Edward McAllister and Hereward Holland; editing by Jason Neely and Giles Elgood)