DRC: Vital Kamerhe slapped with 20-year prison sentence
Vital Kamerhe has been sentenced to 20 years in prison and is disqualified from holding public office for a 10-year period on charges of “embezzlement” and “corruption”. The verdict marks the end of an unprecedented trial and has officially sidelined a key player in the country’s power structure.
After a one month-long, history-making trial that aired live on RTNC, the country’s national broadcaster, between 11 May and 11 June, the judge presiding over the “100-day trial” has delivered his verdict.
Charged with the embezzlement of more than $50m earmarked for urgent public works as part of the 100-day programme, money laundering and corruption, Vital Kamerhe has been sentenced to 20 years of hard labour by the District Court of Kinshasa-La Gombe. However, as hard labour sentences are not enforced in the DRC, the verdict constitutes a 20-year prison term.
The sentence handed down by the judges also disqualifies Kamerhe from holding public office for a 10-year period, which will begin after he serves his prison term.
His co-accused, the Lebanese businessman Jammal Samih, who runs Husmal and Samibo, two companies involved in the construction of social housing for the 100-day programme, and Jeannot Muhima Ndoole, who is responsible for the president’s import-export department – and was absent during the pronouncement of the verdict – were also found guilty of the charges against them. Samih, like Kamerhe, was sentenced to 20 years in prison, while Ndoole received a two-year jail sentence.
In addition, the court ordered the seizure of the funds deposited into the accounts of Hamida Shatur, Daniel Massaro and Soraya Mpiana, as well as of the real estate assets purchased with the embezzled funds.
Defence headed for an appeal
After recounting the events that led to the trial, the judges began by rejecting the various formal objections made by the defence and then explained their ruling in detail.
Regarding the embezzlement offence, the court acknowledged in its ruling that Samih “was not able to account for where the $48.8m ended up”, an amount constituting a portion of the $57m released by the state treasury to Samibo for the construction of the 1,500 social housing units provided for under the 100-day programme.
On this matter, the judges found that the Lebanese businessman would not have been able to achieve his ends “if he had not received essential assistance” from Kamerhe, identified by the court as “the sole supervisor” of the urgent public works programme.
At the end of its statement, the court found that “there isn’t the slightest shadow of a doubt that Kamerhe was involved, as a co-conspirator, in committing the crime of embezzlement of public funds”. Kamerhe, Samih and Ndoole currently have the right to file an appeal.
‘It’s a serious human rights violation’
“The trial represents serious human rights and procedural violations, and the pernicious application of deliberately selected texts,” Jean-Marie Kabengela Ilunga, one of Kamerhe’s lawyers, said.
“The ruling links Kamerhe’s wife as well as children of people who are not parties in the case to the conviction. Daniel Massaro is awaiting his sentence, but the judge has gone beyond the scope of his authority in order to get at people who are irrelevant to the trial. It’s a serious human rights violation,” he added, announcing that the defence intended to appeal the ruling.
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.
Pierre-Olivier Sur, a former president of the Paris Bar and another member of Kamerhe’s legal team, announced that he will try “every possible means of appeal”: in the Democratic Republic of Congo, before Africa’s regional courts and before the United Nations”. On 9 June, Sur referred the matter to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
“We are shocked and dismayed because we were expecting the judges to be able to take into account the relevant information raised by the lawyers. We have observed that the court has even gone beyond the public prosecutor office’s request,” Aimé Boji, Secretary General of UNC (Union for the Congolese party) chaired by Kamerhe.
Over the course of a series of hearings impacted by the suspicious death, during the night of 26 to 27 May, of Judge Raphael Yanyi, tasked with conducting the initial proceedings, the judges tried to establish who was politically responsible for developing the 100-day programme and the chain of disbursement for the funds allocated to it.
The examination of many members of the 100-day programme commission helped shed light on the dysfunctions that marred the programme as it got off the ground, from the time of its creation to its implementation. Most of those involved stressed that Felix Tshisekedi’s chief of staff was responsible for selecting contracts and the process leading up to the release of funds for each contract. Some members even maintained that they were not informed of Kamerhe’s involvement in the supervisory commission.
Throughout the trial, the defendant continuously proclaimed his innocence, deflecting blame on former ministers and claiming on several occasions that he acted with the head of state’s approval.
“These examinations confirmed that there were numerous breaches of law. The programme was set up outside of the finance law for the current year, which violated the framework of the procurement law and did not comply with the normal chain of disbursement of funds,” Florimond Muteba, President of the public expenditure oversight body Observatoire de la Dépense Publique (ODEP), said.
The trial painted a picture of the particular context in which the programme in question was launched, with on the one hand a population impatient for change in governance and, on the other, a newly elected government determined to break with its predecessor, at the risk of moving too quickly.
Indeed, when President Tshisekedi announced the measures of the 100-day urgent public works programme on 2 March 2019, the DRC had neither a parliament nor a government. The teams in place were affiliated with Bruno Tshibala, Joseph Kabila’s final prime minister, and they limited their remit to handling day-to-day operations.
The significant amount of distrust between Tshisekedi and his chief of staff served as justification for the use of other channels, such as the National Road Maintenance Fund (FONER) and the Industry Promotion Fund (FPI), to set up and finance the programme.
A monitoring committee, primarily made up of advisers to the president, was set up but did not officially begin meeting until June. From selecting the projects in question to the contractors responsible for carrying them out, the stage was set for a lack of transparency.
The committee was quickly denounced by several civil society organisations, including ODEP, which maintained in one of its reports that 84.61% of the contracts entered into as part of the 100-day programme were untendered. Despite many whistle-blower complaints, it was not until February 2020 that an audit was initiated and an investigation opened. At that time, the judicial apparatus kicked into gear.
However, the trial also shone a light on the infighting within the president’s very inner circle between the head of state’s close allies and Kamerhe’s.
This rivalry traces back to the day after the presidential election. With the parliamentary majority going to Kabila’s camp, Kamerhe dialled down his ambitions, taking up the post – much more modest on the outside and without any constitutional basis – of chief of staff.
Nevertheless, he managed to rapidly make it one of the most strategic positions early on in Tshisekedi’s term of office, eclipsing several of the president’s advisers and close allies, and at times provoking concern. “Kamerhe is an ally, not a friend,” said a person very close to the head of state six months into his term of office. “We are advancing with great caution.”
What is behind this atmosphere of distrust? Perhaps it’s the fact that throughout Kamerhe’s 30-year political career, he has always acted with a certain freedom of movement according to his ambitions.
Having worked in a dozen different ministerial cabinets under Mobutu, before his career really took off under the rule of Kabila’s father and then Kabila himself, Kamerhe was a key player in the government of Tshisekedi’s predecessor, although he would break with him in 2009. This new era marked the beginning of a long dry spell in which he worked alongside an opposition that suspected him of not having cut ties with his former friends in the majority. A regular risktaker, Kamerhe won his ticket back to the centre of power by aligning himself with Tshisekedi in November 2018. The rest is history.
Did he get ahead of himself? In 2009, a diplomatic cable from the US ambassador to Kinshasa described Kamerhe as having a “blind ambition to one day become president [that] has compromised his judgment”.
In the days following his arrest, on 8 April, a wild rumour gained ground, according to which in the previous weeks, Kamerhe supposedly asked the presidents of Angola, Tanzania and Congo Brazzaville for their support in view of the 2023 presidential election.
This information has been refuted by sources from within two of these presidencies. Kamerhe and his close allies have, in any case, continued to denounce the trial as “politically motivated”. It remains to be seen going forward if, for this man reputed to be a comeback artist, this legal conviction marks his departure from the DRC’s political arena.