A court in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has annulled a three-year prison sentence against opposition leader Moise Katumbi in a move that could enable him to return home from exile in Belgium, according to his lawyer.
The decision by the Court of Cassation, the DRC’s Supreme Court of appeal, overturned a sentence for alleged property fraud, “opening the way” for Katumbi’s return, said lawyer Joseph Mukendi on Friday.
Katumbi, the former governor of the DRC’s copper-mining Katanga region, was sentenced in absentia to three years in prison in June 2016, shortly after defecting from former President Joseph Kabila’s ruling party and announcing he would run for president later that year.
He had fled Congo the previous month in the face of separate charges that he had hired mercenaries and was plotting against the government.
Katumbi denied all the charges, which he said were aimed at keeping him from running to replace Kabila, who was due to step down in December 2016 after 16 years in power.
Kabila‘s government ultimately delayed the election by two years before finally stepping down in January.
The 47-year-old was replaced by current President Felix Tshisekedi, who was declared the winner of a December 30 vote which observers said was marred by irregularities.
Katumbi, a wealthy businessman, attempted to return to the DRC last August to file his candidacy for the presidential vote – a race poll showed him leading. But he was prevented from crossing into the country at its border with Zambia.
Mukendi, Katumbi’s lawyer, said the appeals court found fraud in the sentencing against the opposition leader.
The ruling, issued on Wednesday, accepted the claims of one of the trial judges, Chantal Ramazani, that the verdict had been issued under duress by the government.
Ramazani went into hiding after making the accusations.
Mukendi told Reuters on Friday that Katumbi could return to Congo now to defend himself in the mercenaries case, which has not yet been tried.
Tshisekedi, DRC’s new leader, has promised to reinvigorate justice and fight corruption in the DRC and during his first foreign outing as president to the neighbouring Republic of the Congo in February urged tens of thousands of political exiles to return home, saying everyone would be needed to move the country forward.