Algeria: Billionaire brothers placed in temporary custody

The three Kouninef brothers were arrested on Monday as part of an anti-graft drive.

    Demonstrators in the North African country want a new generation of leaders to replace a ruling elite they see as out of touch [Ramzi Boudina/Reuters]
    Demonstrators in the North African country want a new generation of leaders to replace a ruling elite they see as out of touch [Ramzi Boudina/Reuters]

    Three billionaire brothers arrested on Monday as part of an anti-corruption drive have been placed in temporary custody by a judge in Algiers, the private Ennahar TV channel has reported. 

    The decision on Wednesday to extend the pre-trial detention of the Kouninef brothers - business tycoons close to Algeria's former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika - follows a pledge last week by army chief Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaid Salah to prosecute members of the ruling elite accused of corruption. 

    Reda, Abdelkader, and Tarek Kouninek are believed to have amassed a fortune through preferential access to lucrative state contracts. 

    The three were arrested together with Algeria's wealthiest businessman, Issad Rebrab, founder and chairman of Cevital, Algeria's biggest privately held company. 

    Rebrab is accused of making false statements concerning the transfer of funds and importing "used equipment" despite enjoying tax cuts contingent on the purchase of new material. 

    Karim Kouninek, a fourth brother, was also arrested on Monday but has since been released.

    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.

    Changing the ruling order 

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    Bouteflika has been replaced by Abdelkader Bensalah, the former head of the upper house of parliament, as interim president for 90 days until a presidential election is held on July 4.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

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    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 several times have swollen 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.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies