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Congo Graft Trial – Major Step or Political Theater?

Top Political Figure Convicted for Embezzlement, Corruption

Vital Kamerhe at the first trial hearing at Makala, Kinshasa’s central prison, May 11, 2020. © 2020 Nana Mbala/Radio Okapi

When the judge handed down his verdict on June 20, Vital Kamerhe smiled, seemingly mocking an extraordinary moment in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Throughout the country and across the world, Congolese were watching the proceedings live. Kamerhe, President Felix Tshisekedi’s chief of staff, one of the most powerful political figures in Congo’s recent history and a former ally of ex-president Joseph Kabila, was found guilty of embezzlement and corruption. He is the most senior politician in Congo ever to be prosecuted on graft charges.

Kamerhe was sentenced to 20 years of forced labor – commuted into prison time in Congo – and faces millions of dollars in fines for having participated in the theft of more than US$50 million of public funds allocated to infrastructure projects. He is also barred from running for political office for the next 30 years.

This trial has been an important step in the fight against corruption. Throughout the proceedings, Congolese on social media denounced a system that has long been hollowed out by rampant graft, reminding authorities that the misappropriation of public funds goes beyond just one political figure. Other senior figures implicated in corruption in recent years should also be investigated and appropriately prosecuted in fair trials, regardless of their position or political affiliation. If no further investigations are undertaken, Kamerhe’s case risks being remembered as merely score-settling between political rivals.

Kamerhe and his co-accused – he was convicted alongside a Lebanese businessman and another presidential aide – are expected to appeal the verdict.

The trial raised concerns that the investigations left important stones unturned and that key witnesses implicated in crimes would be able to get off scot free.

Most worrying, the judge who originally presided over the trial, Raphael Yanyi, mysteriously died on May 27. Authorities initially claimed he died of natural causes, but on June 16, Congo’s justice minister announced the cause of death as a brain hemorrhage following trauma to the head. The government has since opened a murder investigation.

There is a palpable desire in Congo to see the country on a path to rule of law. To get there, Congolese will need reassurances that this trial was not just political theater. Many victims and families are also awaiting justice for crimes and rights abuses committed by officials from the previous administration, some of whom are still in top positions. No one should remain untouchable.

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