Two former Algerian prime ministers were convicted of corruption-related charges and sentenced to lengthy prison terms in a landmark trial.
An Algerian court pronounced the verdicts on Tuesday against Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, handing Ouyahia 15 years in prison and $16,000 in fines. Sellal was sentenced to 12 years in prison and given $8,000 in fines.
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The trial was the first resulting from sweeping investigations into fraud allegations launched after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down in April in the face of mass protests that erupted in February against his bid for a fifth term.
Both former prime ministers were longtime Bouteflika allies.
Noufal Abboud, executive director of the Nordic Center for Conflict Transformation, told Al Jazeera it was the first time any prime minister had been tried since independence from France in 1962.
“What is important to mention also is that these trials are selective and the enforcement is also selective. This comes in time when elections have already started outside Algeria among the Algerians overseas,” said Abboud.
“And it is in the context in which the protests continue for over 40 weeks.”
Some protesters outside the court shouted “Gang of gangsters!” and many waved or wore Algerian flags. Police surrounded the court because demonstrators were trying to get into the building see the trial in person.
Unusually, the trial was televised as authorities sought to show the public they are taking protesters’ concerns about corruption seriously.
The former leaders were accused of abusing authority in a car manufacturing embezzlement scandal.
“It’s a historic trial,” law professor Rachid Lerari said. “Future leaders will think twice before using public money [for personal gain again].”
Protesters pushed out Bouteflika earlier this year in part because of anger at corruption.
Tuesday’s sentences marked the second verdict since September, when a military court handed long prison terms to the once-untouchable intelligence chief and youngest brother of the former president.
The verdicts come ahead of a presidential election on Thursday, which demonstrators say will not be fair because some of Bouteflika’s allies are still in power. The army has said the vote will be fair and is the only way out of the crisis.
Abboud noted the verdicts and sentences were announced just before the vote.
“It’s about how the same system that created these judges who are pronouncing these sentences is the same system that created how these ministers were holding power allegedly and misusing public funds allegedly,” he said.
The court in Algiers also handed 10-year prison terms to two former industry ministers, and sentences ranging from three to seven years to five prominent businessmen.
Many former senior officials have been in detention as the army seeks to quell mass protests over corruption and demands to remove those guilty in the ruling elite.
In all, 19 defendants – two former prime ministers, other prominent former politicians and car industry tycoons – face charges ranging from money laundering to abuse of office and granting undue privileges.
The proceedings have been dominated by accusations of illegal funding during Bouteflika’s last election campaign this year.
The prosecutor on Sunday said the campaign had caused a loss to the public treasury estimated at $920m.
Ouyahia and Sellal, and the other main defendants, denied the accusations against them.
Sellal broke down on Sunday, swearing he had “not betrayed the country”.
Among the businessmen jailed was Ali Haddad, a former chief of Algeria’s largest business association, who was imprisoned for seven years.
Former transport minister Abdelghani Zaalane was the only defendant acquitted.
The court also issued a 20-year prison sentence in absentia to former industry minister Abdesslam Bouchouareb, who is abroad. An international arrest warrant has been issued by the same court.