Following a trial that lasted several months, on Friday 14 August the Angolan courts sentenced José Filomeno ‘Zenu’ dos Santos, a son of former President José Eduardo dos Santos, to five years in prison for fraud, money laundering and influence peddling.
This much-awaited decision illustrates the downfall of the former presidential family and the willingness of dos Santos’ successor, João Lourenço, to break with them.
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And under pressure about potential corruption in her business dealings, Zenu’s half-sister Isabel dos Santos also took a major step back from her commercial empire last week.
Zenu’s lawyer and the dos Santos family did not make any public statements after the sentence was handed down. It is less than the prosecutor’s request, which was at least seven years.
The other three people who appeared alongside José Filomeno dos Santos were also convicted. Among them, a former governor of the central bank, Valter Filipe, received the heaviest sentence – eight years. However, the defendants’ lawyers said that they will appeal the decision and seek to have their clients held at home pending the appeal.
The case concerns a plan to set up a $35bn investment fund proposed by two foreign players, one of whom was a friend of José Filomeno dos Santos and appeared alongside him at the trial, Jorge Gaudens Pontes Sebastião. This project, authorised by José Eduardo dos Santos when he was head of state, gave rise to fraud aimed at diverting, via three transfers of $500m, a total of $1.5bn of public money.
The Angolan Supreme Court’s decision brings to an end a groundbreaking trial, which was the first-ever case against a member of the former ruling family. All-powerful until 2017, when José Eduardo dos Santos handed over the presidency to Lourenço after 38 years, the dos Santos clan have been hit hard by the anti-corruption crusade led by Angola’s newish strongman.
The dos Santos clan claims that its members are the victims of a witch hunt and that Zenu’s trial was politically motivated. The administration says it is letting the justice system do its work independently, recalling Lourenço’s promise to put an end to corruption and nepotism.
While “Zedu”, the nickname of José Eduardo dos Santos, has been in exile in Spain since April 2018, two of his daughters, Welwitschia and Isabel dos Santos, are experiencing difficulties at home. The former was excluded from the ruling party, the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, and had to end her activities in public broadcasting.
Isabel, who was a symbol of the family’s economic success on the international stage before being exposed by “Luanda Leaks” at the beginning of the year, had her assets frozen in Angola and Portugal due to investigations for mismanagement and misappropriation of public funds. The (former) business mogul, who last week announced her departure from a stronghold of her business empire, the telephone operator Unitel, strongly contests the claims made against her.
Remaining in Luanda, her half-brother Zenu – named by his father at the head of the country’s sovereign wealth fund, endowed with $5bn between 2013 and 2017 – is paying the heaviest price. He was dismissed from the management of the sovereign wealth fund in January 2018, charged in March of that year and held in pre-trial detention for almost six months, from September 2018 to March 2019, before being placed under judicial supervision.
The case started in December 2019, and throughout the trial, Zenu kept a low-profile. He pointed out his collaboration with the judiciary from the outset and denied all wrongdoing.
The court was seemingly not convinced by those arguments.
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