By Stanis Bujakera
KINSHASA (Reuters) - The chief of staff to Democratic Republic of Congo's president denied all wrongdoing on Monday as his trial on charges of embezzling more than $50 million in public funds opened live on national television.
Vital Kamerhe, who appeared at a two-hour hearing wearing prison fatigues and a surgical mask as protection against the coronavirus, is the most senior politician to face trial for graft in Congo, where high-level corruption is endemic.
Kamerhe backed President Felix Tshisekedi in his successful 2018 election campaign in return for Tshisekedi's support the next time around in 2023. The veteran power-broker's arrest on April 8 sent shock waves through the country's ruling coalition.
If convicted, Kamerhe could serve up to 20 years in prison and would be ineligible to contest the next election.
Kamerhe, 61, told the court he never touched money earmarked for social housing under Tshisekedi's flagship 100-day building programme that prosecutors say was stolen. Kamerhe and several other senior government figures oversaw the public works drive.
"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 said.
Kamerhe is charged alongside two others, Lebanese businessman Jammal Samih and Jeannot Muhima, a senior aide to Tshisekedi. They also pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The trial will resume on May 25. The court has 48 hours to rule on Kamerhe's request to be released on bail.
The arrest of Kamerhe, a former president of the national assembly, exposed deep fractures in his coalition with Tshisekedi. Some of Kamerhe's supporters say he is being targeted to remove a potential rival to Tshisekedi. The presidency has declined to comment on the affair.
Transparency advocates see the trial as a litmus test case for Tshisekedi's commitment to addressing corruption, which they say was rampant under former president Joseph Kabila.
Congo is one of the world's poorest countries despite vast reserves of copper, cobalt and gold, and investigative reports by domestic and international organisations have repeatedly accused senior government officials of graft.
(Reporting by Stanis Bujakera; writing by Hereward Holland; editing by Mark Heinrich)