By Hana Saada

Algeria’s landmark televised trial: Court convicts, imprisons 2 ex-PMs, ministers, tycoons for corruption

December 11, 2019 - 10:54

ALGERIA - For the second time since Algeria’s pro-democracy mass protests, following the first trial with long prison terms handed to former spy chiefs, leftist political party SG, and the brother of the ousted President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, over charges of plotting against the state and undermining the army, senior political officials and oligarchs, including two former Algerian prime ministers, went on live trial on groundbreaking corruption charges in the most high-profile act of transparency and accountability.

The exceptional trial came few days before the historical presidential election for the replacement of the long-serving president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, forced to step down, this April, following mass protests. It resulted from the sweeping investigations into graft allegations launched after the resignation of former president Bouteflika.

The televised trial took place at the Sidi M’Hamed court in Algiers. It involved Algerian power players, including former premier; Ahmed Ouyahia, considered as one of the veteran statesmen of the North African country, and a "crisis manager". He has served as prime minister for four terms since mid-1990s, before tendering his resignation in March amid protests against Mr. Bouteflika and the whole old guard, as well as his predecessor Abdelmalek Sellal, who held the post of prime minister under Bouteflika for five years (2011-2016). He is well-known for his populist rhetoric.

The defendants, facing charges ranging from “corruption to abuse of power, granting undue privileges in the vehicle assembly industry, embezzlement, squandering of money and the misappropriation of public funds", denied any wrongdoing.

The inquiry involved a car assembly corruption scandal with huge bribes, inflated invoices and dodgy loans. The Algerian automotive sector got its start in 2014, based on partnerships inked between foreign groups and large Algerian corporations, owned by oligarchs linked to the old guard, with the aim to boost the trade balance in response to lower energy revenue due to the oil prices’ drop.

The trial was adjourned on Monday, December 2nd, following the defense criticism that the trial's conditions to provide a fair trial had not been met due to the stampede of citizens who flocked to the courtroom to attend the unprecedented trials. The defense vowed to boycott the hearings, dubbed as “politicized " and marred by a climate of "settling accounts".

On dec. 4th, the trial begun with the defense panel's calls to boycott it, describing, again, the conditions as “unfit”, urging for its adjournment until after the presidential elections, slated for Dec. 12th.

In this aspect, the chairman of Algiers’ Bar Association, Abdelmadjid Selini, stressed that these trials should be adjourned until the holding of the presidential election. 

"No fair trial can take place when grudge and pressure are high. It should be put off till the dust settles," Abdelmadjid said, adding: "Wrongdoers must pay the price, but fair and just conditions must be granted to all citizens." 

For their part, defendants showed a readiness to proceed with the trial. Called first to the stand, former premier Ahmed Ouyahia dubbed the tribunal as “not competent” to try him, arguing that the Algerian constitution stipulates that “crimes and infractions committed by prime ministers while in office fell under a "High Court of State".

For his part, the judge responded that the organic law to establish this court has not been passed yet, and that he (ie Ouyahia) and Sellal should answer for their actions before the ordinary court. 
Ouyahia faced accusation of "misappropriation of public funds, abuse of office, granting undue privileges, conflict of interest, corruption, money laundering and false statements, favoring certain manufacturers in the automotive sector - even if they did not fulfill brief specifications - to the detriment of competitors.

"There is no misappropriation (of public funds) and the choice ... was based on the market. These manufacturers were already present and we wanted to keep them," the former prime minister said in his defence.
When questioned by Sidi M’hamed court’ judge about the reason behind contacting the former minister of industry to grant undue privileges to certain manufacturers: “You acted with favoritism when you granted authorizations to set up car assemblies,” the judge told Ouyahia.

Ouyahia denied all the charges, replying, "We dealt with corporations not individuals, and I didn’t favor anyone," adding: “The permits were granted in accordance with the law.”

The former premier denied "resorting to nepotism" in the vehicle assembly file, "or violating the law,” thus, rejecting the charge of" abuse of power". After denying" the granting of benefits to any operator ", the defendant said that" the benefits were granted, in the context of the vehicle assembly, in accordance with the Investment Promotion Act, "claiming" to have implemented the Government's policy on investment promotion and job creation ".

He added:"What happened in 2017 is not my responsibility. When I took over the government, I found factories in operation.”

Besides, the former premier was asked about preventing foreign investors from inking partnerships’ agreements to carry out automotive projects, especially that they could have added value. 

"In 2014, imports reached $ 6 billion, so we had to keep only seven importers or else the public treasury would have run out of hard currency," Ouyahia replied, denying any misuse of office
As for his wealth, Ouyahia replied that these huge amounts are his own money that had not been acquired through his official job as prime minister.

As long as Ouyahia's predecessor is concerned, Abdelmalek Sellal faced charges ranging from granting undue privileges in detriment of others, to "secret" funding of Bouteflika's campaigns. While defending himself, he denied all the charges against him, emphasizing that  he had had "no authority" over his ministers. “My role as a premier was to coordinate with the ministries,” he pointed out.

Regarding the illegal financing of the longtime president Bouteflika’s presidential campaign, Sellal, being campaign manager for Bouteflika while he announced his bid to stand for another term of office, denied this act, arguing that he was not in charge of the funding part of the campaign, accusing the ousted president and his younger brother, Said Bouteflika, widely seen as the real power behind the presidency of his brother after this latter suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013, and who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for plotting against the state and undermining the army, the ones who fully financed it. 

Both former premiers denied all the charges against them, arguing that they were high-ranking political officials in charge of overseeing strategies and policies and not inspecting all sectors’ workers for any misappropriation of funds. They, just, placed the blame on the former ministers, mainly the minister of industry, Abdeslam Bouchouareb. 

However, comparing between them, Ouyahia was confident and fierce in defending himself, while Sellal looked pale and absent-minded in court. He failed in defending himself fluently, with answers totally unrelated and illogical.

Former Minister of Industry Youcef Yousfi denied all charges against him at his first hearing; asserting that he was a mere executor of instructions submitted to him by former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia.

For their part, all the officials like Yousfi, Ouyahia, Bedda or Sellal decided simply to charge the former minister Abdeslam Bouchouareb, who is currently on the run and covered by an international arrest warrant issued by the Algerian justice; following two convocations to which he did not respond.

Also standing trial were former ministers Bedda Mahdjoub (industry and mines), Youcef Yousfi, who succeeded him in the post, and Abdelghani Zaalane (public works and transport), prominent  oligarchs and businessmen, to wit;  Ali Haddad, former head of the main Algerian employer organisation, the Forum of Business Leaders (FCE) and the founder and CEO of private construction firm ETRHB, former FCE vice president Mohamed Bairi, CEO of the Ival group, owner of industrial vehicle plant Iveco, Ahmed Mazouz, president of the eponymous group that assembles and distributes Chinese-brand vehicles in Algeria, Hassane Arbaoui, head of Global Group which runs an Algerian factory for South Korean company Kia, the automobile tycoon, Mahieddine Tahkout, his son and two brothers, charged with money laundering and inciting civil employees to abuse their positions, in order to obtain illegal privileges, car industry executives, bankers as well as another employees holding high-positions in different public departments and ministerial offices.

The role of sons of senior officials in deals and projects was highlighted by the trial, emerging great indignation amid Algerians whose key demand at the peaceful demonstrations was the fight against all forms of corruption impregnated in the entrenched ruling hierarchy and whose claims have not yet been mollified by the arrest of dozens of high-ranking officials, premiers, ministers, businessmen, oligarchs and tycoons.

The defendants’ statements revealed that thousands of billions of Algerian funds were in the hands of businessmen in the form of tax exemptions, facilities, and undue privileges. 

Businessmen, while appearing before the judge, accused, directly, Ouyhia and Sellal, of corruption and favoritism. Abderrahmane Achaibou was heard in the trial related to the case of corruption in the automotive industry.

 Before the judge, Abderrahmane Achaibou, accused the former prime ministers, Ahmed Ouyahia, Abdelmalek Sellal and the then Minister of Industry, Abdesselam Boucouareb. "I submitted, on September 18, 2016, a complete dossier to the Prime Minister, which was, also, handed over to the former minister, Abdelmalek Sellal". Bouchouareb blocked "our investment project in this sector in 2014".

He continued: "I sent to the former Prime Minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, four correspondences, I brought all the details, but he did not answer and he did not intervene". 
Questioned by the judge during this hearing, the member of the technical commission, Amin Tira, who was in charge of the files, responded in the same direction, "I acted according to Bouchaouareb's instructions", underlining that "this last blocked the file. "We wrote to Sellal but he did not answer," he concluded.

With respect to the “secret” funding of presidential campaign, billions were allocated by the oligarchs to, illegally and secretely fund a new presidential term for the ousted president Bouteflika. 

The tycoon, Ali Haddad, for his part, was heard along with the businessmen Achaibou and Omar Rebrab, son of the businessman Issad Rebrab, owner of Cevital group.

Asked by the judge on the 19.5 billion discovered at the headquarters of his company ETRHB and intended to finance the campaign of the former candidate Abdelaziz Bouteflika, he replied that Said Bouteflika asked him to help him finance his brother’s electoral campaign. 

“It was Said who contacted me and asked me to help him organize his brother’s election campaign.” said Ali Haddad. 

And to add: “It is Said Bouteflika who ordered me to keep the campaign money estimated at 19.5 billion (centimes) at the headquarters of the ETRHB”.

According to him, “Said was worried that Hydra’s campaign office would be robbed.”

Since the beginning of the trial that started last week, the "billions" are evoked all the time. This dilapidation has allowed several businessmen to enrich themselves, on the one hand, and tremendous financing of the election campaign to ensure the deposed president a fifth term, on the other hand.

In fact, Abdelghani Zaalane, who remained for nine days director of the electoral campaign of the candidate president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019, revealed that five businessmen had made contributions totaling 750 million dinars (5.6 million euros), well above the legal campaign spending cap.

Among these businessmen is the boss of the group ETRHB, Ali Haddad, with a contribution of 19 billion centimes, the owner of the group KIA with 20 billion centimes and SDA Metidja with 10 billion centimes.
Thousands of billions of tax benefits

Under the tax benefits granted to businessmen, former Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal granted a total of 2400 billion centimes.

The Tahkout group benefited from a tax exemption of the order of 4800 billion centimes and Maazouz of 11350 billion centimes.

The same audience revealed that no less than 11 trillion centimes were squandered in vehicle assembly while the vehicle import bill in 2014 reached $ 6 billion.

300 billion in a personal account of Ouyahia

Another revelation from the first day of the trial is the amount of 300 billion centimes in an account domiciled at the BDL agency Staoueli (Algiers) in the name of the former Prime Minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, and here are the details:
The judge questioned Ouyahia on bank accounts containing 30 billion centimes, which he did not disclose to the court.

The judge reminded him that he had told the investigating judge of the Supreme Court that this were " gifts from friends, and then you retracted, why? "This money has nothing to do with my position as prime minister. I'm not stupid enough to put money from corruption into a public bank account. " The judge continued his interrogation: "You have two accounts (bank and postal) that you have not declared. A movement of 30 billion centimes was recorded in 3 months. "I did not declare my BDL Staouali account for the simple reason that the origin of the funds there was irrelevant to my duties as Prime Minister. In fact, I have two bank accounts, one at the CPA level of 30,000 AD. The second is at the level of the BDL, and my CCP account is only powered by 15,000 dinars, "replied Ouyahia.” The exemptions you granted cost the Treasury 177 billion dinars," the judge said to the defendant.

"These exemptions are passed by the National Council of Investments," retorted Ouyahia. 

Regarding his family, Ouyahia assured that his wife has no company in her name and that his son has benefited from the ANSEJ (the National Agency for Youth Employment Support (ANSEJ), adding that" he has transferred “ billions” to his son to help him boost his project”.
His lawyer defended the latter "right to work", adding about Ouyahia’ son holds a PhD in computer science that authorizes him to start his own business.

During the trial, Ouyahia suffered from discomfort (vertigo). The judge asked him if it is necessary to seek a doctor, he refused.

Turning to Sellal, the defendants was questioned by the Judge about the illegal financing of Bouteflika's election campaign. "I took part in the campaign, then, I was sidelined" said Sellal. The judge instructed him to answer directly. "I'm talking about funding," he stressed."I left before the official launch of the campaign," said Sellal who was questioned, also, on the transfer of funds in accounts opened in his name. The defendant, for his part, stressed that "all the responsibility is up to the candidate, we were only volunteers. I signed the opening papers, and I did not know what I was doing.”

Then, I closed the accounts after being removed from the campaign. Other defendants like the former ministers Mahdjoub Beda and Abdelkader Zaâlane, and businessmen like Maazouz were also questioned by the judge. Speaking on the sidelines of Sellal and Ouyahia's public lawsuit in Abane Ramdane, former Minister of Tourism and Governor of the province of Boumerdes, Nouria Zerhouni, implicated in the Bairi case, said, "I have come to serve my country and I have done nothing to harm it, "she said to the journalist of  Ennahar Online website. Nouria Zerhouni continued, "I hope justice will prove me right." She is prosecuted for "granting a property" to Bairi when she was Governor (wali) of Boumerdès province.

In addition, the defendant Sellal’ son Farès, was brought before the judge to be questioned on the shares he owns in the Mazouz group's factory. He explained to the judge that he owns 23% of the capital of the Mazouz group's factory. Facts his father claimed he was not aware of.
The judge, immediately, wondered: “How your son hold a quarter of a share in a group that bursts billions by manufacturing heavy trucks, and who are not aware?”
The third session was lifted by the judge till the presence, as a witness, of Said Bouteflika who had wielded enormous influence as gatekeeper to his ailing brother while in office. He was seen as the linchpin of an opaque clique of politicians and business leaders who influenced decision-making at the top of the gas-exporting North African country. The advisor and key aide of the former President of the Republic Bouteflika, is incarcerated in Blida prison and sentenced to fifteen years in prison for conspiracy against the state in the company of generals Toufik and Tartag .

Lately, the jailed brother appeared in court as a witness in the graft trial; however, he refused to respond to questions. He, immediately, left the room.
On the fourth day of the groundbreaking corruption trial, the prosecutor of the republic took the floor, indicting the defendants of ruing the Algerian economy, causing distrust between the Algerian citizens and their administration as well as pushing them to flee their rich-oil country. 

Heavy prison sentences were sought by the Algerian public prosecutor, who represented the losses, amounting to hundreds of billions, caused by the actions of the former officials; -- two former premiers, other prominent ex-politicians and automotive industry tycoons --

In his indictment, the prosecutor at the court of Sidi Mhamed demanded a 20-year prison sentence against the former premier Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal.

Regarding the former Minister of Industry and Mines, Abdessalem Bouchouareb, currently at large, the prosecutor has requested a sentence of 20 years in prison in absentia. An international arrest warrant has been issued against him.

For the two former Ministers of Industry, judged in the same case, Youcef Yousfi and Mahdjoub Bedda, the prosecutor has sought a 15-year prison sentence. For Ms. Zerhouni, the ex-Governor of Boumerdes province and Abdelghani Zalene, the prosecutor asked for 10 years firm.

The same prison sentence was sought for the three operators Baïri, Mazouz and Larbaoui as well as Aboud Achour, Malek Hadj Said and Nemroud Abdelkader. 

All these penalties are accompanied by a fine of one million dinars for each accused. The same 10-year sentence was demanded for Ali Haddad, his chief of staff Hadj Malek Said and Ferrat Ahmed, with a fine of 3 million dinars for each. Against the three Semaï brothers, associates of the operator Mazouz, as well as Farès the son of Abdelmalek Sellal, 8 years in prison were claimed, with a fine of 3 million dinars. For the six executives of the National Council of Investment and Andi, the prosecutor also asked for 8 years in prison. In the case of four fugitive defendants, a sentence of 7 years' imprisonment was required. 
The prosecutor also requested the confiscation of ill-gotten property of these businessmen and high-ranking officials. He also asked to deprive the employees of the administrations involved in these cases of their civil rights.

With respect to the legal persons, the prosecutor required a fine of five million dinars.

During ninety minutes of a tormentous indictment, the prosecutor of the Republic of the criminal court of Sidi M'hamed, revealed heavy losses for the Public Treasury caused by the irresponsible decisions taken by the defendants while exercising their functions. He began by saying that the trial taking place in the very famous Abane-Ramdane court will remain etched in memory. "This is a first in the annals of justice. A real realization of the rule of law, "said the public prosecutor before providing further details on their actions, the former senior officials of the state have caused enormous damage to the country, not only economic ones  but also on the social level. "It is because of such behavior that the citizen has lost confidence in his state and his justice. It is because of their carelessness that we have known the harga (the illegal immigration via craft boats or death boats ) . They ruined our economy and called for a policy of austerity to get better. We did not believe in the beginning when we heard that the senior leaders of this country were corrupt but by examining this file, we are convinced today. This trial will be a lesson for all those who will occupy positions of responsibility because what really happened was a huge destruction and not an investment, "asserted the young prosecutor.

Then, he presented the damages they caused to base his charging decisions. The first to be cited by the prosecutor are politicians, former prime ministers and ex-ministers. The prosecutor advanced the staggering figure of 11 trillion centimes damages ($920m) caused to the public treasury for the secret funding of the election campaign of the long serving president Bouteflika.

He, immediately, recalled, in detail, the advantages granted by Ouyahia, Sellal and the former ministers of industry to economic operators, incriminated in this case. He quoted the technical commission, set up by Bouchouareb whose members had no qualifications and who played no role since the former minister, the real decision maker, acted on the basis of relational, nepotism and cronyism. He evoked 1500 billion as damage caused by the advantages granted by the Andi.

Regarding Abbdessalem Bouchouareb, currently on the run,  has squandered 772 billion centimes. The latter, recalled the prosecutor, "received 13 billion centimes to grant facilities to the brand Hyundai and the owner of Sovac Oulmi, in detention, offered him a villa in Hydra. 

Ahmed Ouyahia, accused of granting undue and excessive privileges, abuse of power, conflict of interests, and money laundering, squandered 7,700 billion centimes, according to the prosecutor who insisted on his false statement of heritage and his account at the BDL of Staouéli. According to the prosecution, this account, opened in 2014, has seen a major movement with large sums exceeding 30 billion centimes. "The money entered the account before being transferred to the accounts of his wife and son," stressed the prosecutor, arguing that the source of these sums is unknown and could not be justified by the accused.

 Abdelmalek Sellal, for his part, was also "stripped naked" by the prosecutor who stated that the latter has squandered some 2400 billion centimes, recalling that he intervened for the grant of a parcel of agricultural land to Baïri and that he has granted to his son 23% of shares of his group. The prosecutor of the republic did not forget to recall the role played by Sellal in the secret funding of the 5th term of the deposed president Bouteflika. Regarding Yousfi, the judge highlighted that he caused some 72.4 billion damage. For Mahdjoub Bedda whose squandering is valued at 800 billion centimes, the prosecutor insisted on the conflict of interest because the former minister owned two companies.

Finally, regarding the three operators, Baïri, Larbaoui and Mazouz, the prosecutor asserted that these three businessmen benefited from undue advantages causing losses of no less than 5100 billion centimes.

It was also revealed that the operator Baïri resorted to the use of commercial records “ specifications” of third persons, the same as those used by Kamel Chikhi, alias "El Boucher" or “The Butcher”, the main accused in the case of the seizure of 700 kg of cocaine at Oran port in the West of the country. 

Talking about the nine companies of  Baïri, the prosecutor evoked, also, 34 companies of Larbaoui and the 27 companies owned by Mazouz. The prosecutor referred to all other defendants, without exception, namely; the former Governor of the province of Boumerdes, the former director of the CPA, executives of the industry and  the associates of Mazouz, accused of complicity in money laundering. The indictment of the prosecutor were followed by the pleadings of the lawyers.

During the evening session, the defense lawyers of the politicians and businessmen summed up their advocacy.
At the end of the session, the floor was given to all the defendants involved in corruption cases of car assembly and illegal and secret financing of the election campaign of deposited President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 5th term

The defendants maintained their innocence, claiming that they have served the country with great dedication. According to the correspondent of the channel Ennaher TV, the former Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal cried in full audience and broke down, swearing he had "not betrayed the country".

On Dec, 10, the judge opened the session, announcing the historic verdict; 

Ouyahia was sentenced to 15 years in prison and handed $16,000 in fines. Sellal was sentenced to 12 years in prison and given $8,000 in fines.

The Sidi M'hamed court also ordered Ouyahia to be deprived of his civil and political rights and the seizure of all income and property illegally acquired, according to the APS.

The court also sentenced to 20 years in prison in absentia, the former Minister of Industry and Mines, Abdessalem Bouchouareb (on the run) for whom international arrest warrant has been issued.

Former Minister of Industry and Mines, Youcef Yousfi was sentenced to 10 years in prison, while the former Minister of Public Works and Transport, Abdelghani Zaalane, was acquitted.

Former Minister of Industry and Mines, Mahdjoub Bedda and former Governor of Boumerdes, Nouria Yamina Zerhouni were sentenced to 10 years and 5 years in prison respectively.

In the same case, the court handed down sentences of 7 years imprisonment against the two businessmen Ali Haddad and Ahmed Mazouz, 6 years in prison with a fine worth DZD600 million against businessman Hassan Larbaoui, 3 years in prison against businessman Mohamed Bairi, 5 years in prison against Amine Tira, 3 years in prison against Aboud Achour and 2 years in prison against Mahmoud Chaid and Hadj Said.

Fares Sellal, son of the former Prime Minister, was sentenced to 3 years in prison, while the Director of Industry of the province of Boumerdes was acquitted.

Security measures were tightened in the vicinity of the court, where hundreds of Algerians gathered. Following the delivery of the verdict, cheers rose from the crowd of people who gathered outside the courthouse. Some of them shouted “Gang of gangsters!” and many waved or wore Algerian flags. 

The men, who deny wrongdoing, have 10 days to appeal.

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