Algeria: 5 billionaires arrested as part of anti-corruption drive

Move follows army chief's pledge to launch anti-fraud crackdown as protesters continue to demand political overhaul.

    Demonstrators have for weeks now called for a new generation of leaders to replace the ruling elite, seen by many as corrupt [Ramzy Boudina/Reuters]
    Demonstrators have for weeks now called for a new generation of leaders to replace the ruling elite, seen by many as corrupt [Ramzy Boudina/Reuters]

    Algerian authorities have arrested five billionaires as part of an anti-corruption investigation, State TV reported.

    Issad Rebrab, the founder and chairman of Cevital, Algeria's biggest privately held company, was arrested on Monday alongside four brothers from the Kouninef family.

    Reda, Abdelkader, Karim and Tarek Kouninef are believed to be part of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's inner circle while Rebrab, owner of the critical Liberte newspaper, opposed the president's 2014 re-election.

    Rebrab denied the arrest in a tweet shortly after the announcement was made, saying he voluntarily answered the police's call to give evidence on a case involving industrial equipment which authorities had seized from him in June 2018.

    But private Ennahar TV channel reported later on Monday the five individuals seized by authorities had been taken to court to face the charges levelled by the general prosecutor's office. Further details were not immediately available.

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    The move came after Algeria's army chief, Lieutenant General Gaid Salah, announced last week that members of the ruling elite in the major oil and natural gas-producing country would be prosecuted for corruption.

    An Algerian court has already summoned former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and current Finance Minister Mohamed Loukal, two close associates of Bouteflika, in an investigation into suspected misuse of public money, state TV said on Saturday.

    Authorities also arrested prominent businessman Ali Haddad in early April. 

    One of the country's richest men, Haddad was caught trying to cross into neighbouring Tunisia with large sums of money.

    Calls for political overhaul

    Bouteflika stepped down two weeks ago after 20 years in power, bowing to pressure from the army and weeks of demonstrations by mainly younger Algerians seeking change.

    Demonstrators in the North African country want a new generation of leaders to replace a ruling elite seen by many ordinary Algerians as out of touch and unable to jump-start a faltering economy hampered by cronyism.

    Bouteflika has been replaced by Abdelkader Bensalah, head of the upper house of parliament, as interim president for 90 days until a presidential election is held on July 4.

    Hundreds of thousands protested on Friday to demand the resignation of Bensalah and a complete political overhaul. The protests marked the ninth consecutive week of demonstrations.

    Salah said on April 16 the military was considering all options to resolve the ongoing political crisis, but also warned: "Time is running out".

    He did not specify what measures the army could take, though said military leaders "have no ambition but to protect our nation".

    The army has largely patiently monitored the mostly peaceful protests that at times swelled to hundreds of thousands of people.

    But on Friday, international NGO Human Rights Watch warned police have been "forcibly dispersing peaceful demonstrations and arbitrarily detaining protesters" in Algiers as part of a "government crackdown" on the pro-democracy movement.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies