DRC: Congolese court seeks 20 years in prison for Vital Kamerhe
As of Thursday, a 20-year prison sentence is being sought by the Congolese judiciary for former National Assembly president Vital Kamerhe, President Félix Tshisekedi’s political ally and chief of staff.
Vital Kamerhe, 61, is the main defendant alongside two co-accused in an unprecedented trial for the alleged embezzlement and laundering of more than $50m in public funds.
The ruling is scheduled to be handed down on 20 June, the presiding judge of the district court indicated at the close of the fifth hearing, which was aired live and closely followed by the Congolese people.
The trial is being held on the grounds of Kinshasa Central Prison, where Kamerhe has been in pre-trial custody since 8 April. Like his two fellow co-accused, he maintains his innocence, denouncing a “political trial” and the court’s show of “brutality and relentlessness” against him. The prosecutor has sought 20 years of “hard labour” for Kamerhe, as well as 10 years of disqualification from voting and holding public office.
The same 20-year sentence is being sought for the first of Kamerhe’s two co-defendants, the Lebanese businessman Jammal Samih, 78.
The prosecutor’s office also requested that the bank account assets of Kamerhe’s wife, step-daughter and a cousin of the accused be seized, as well as “the seizure of real estate assets acquired using embezzled funds over the period from January 2019 until now”.
During the plaintiff’s oral arguments, a lawyer representing the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) claimed that the couple, who wed in February 2019, purchased and renovated a mansion in France at a cost of over €1m.
‘True justice will come from God’
“It’s really as though you want to destroy my entire family,” Kamerhe said, defending himself regarding a house “45 minutes away from Paris”. “True justice will come from God, when human judges are sidelined by true justice,” he added, asserting that he warned his wife before the hearing that “the die is cast” concerning his legal fate.
Originally from South Kivu province (eastern DRC), Kamerhe has been a central political figure in the country since the 2000s.
After announcing his presidential bid on 30 December 2018, he pulled out of the race one month before the vote, clearing the way for Tshisekedi. At the time, the two men made a pact under which Kamerhe would become prime minister and eventually the presidential candidate in the upcoming 2023 election.
Once in office, Tshisekedi instead appointed Kamerhe as chief of staff because he had to reserve the prime minister post to a close ally of his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, in accordance with another political pact.
The public funds Kamerhe allegedly embezzled were earmarked for certain urgent public works as part of the 100-day programme launched by the head of state in early March 2019.
The works in question involved the construction of social housing, in the form of 1,500 prefabricated homes imported from Turkey, for military personnel. A deal was struck with Samih, who has also requested an acquittal: “I’m innocent,” he said in court.
Kamerhe and Samih are being tried alongside a third defendant, Jeannot Muhima, who is responsible for the president’s import-export department as well as the customs clearance of imported goods.
Raphaël Yanyi’s unexpected death
Kamerhe’s Paris-based lawyers confirmed that they have contacted the “United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention” to “request that they take urgent action to ensure that Kamerhe’s fundamental rights are upheld”.
“There is no evidence of any illicit financial flows,” Jean-Marie Kabengela and Pierre-Olivier Sur wrote in a statement. The two lawyers also touched on the unexpected death of Judge Raphaël Yanyi during the night of 26 to 27 May, hardly two days after he presided over the second hearing of the trial.
The article continues below
Get your free PDF: The top 50 Disruptors
Get ready for disruption
Complete the form for your free download of The Africa Report’s special feature "The top 50 Disruptors". Get your free PDF by completing the following form.
Pending the results of an autopsy, “several sources” assert that the judge was “poisoned and accuse Vital Kamerhe as the perpetrator of the act”. “The Congolese prison authorities are unable to ensure Kamerhe’s safety in this tense environment,” the lawyers wrote.
Kamerhe has not formally resigned from his chief of staff position, but an acting chief of staff – Kamerhe’s deputy – was appointed. He is the leader of the Union pour la Nation Congolaise (UNC), a party whose members include several ministers serving in Tshisekedi’s coalition government. None of them have resigned to date.