Two former prime ministers in Algeria have gone on trial on corruption charges, in the most high-profile act of transparency and accountability since a pro-democracy movement pushed out the long-serving president.
The exceptional trial, which is being televised and also involves several other former Algerian power players, comes at a time of renewed political tensions in the oil and gas-rich country, a week in advance of a controversial election to replace President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Ahmed Ouyahia, who was forced out as prime minister in March as protests against Bouteflika escalated, and his predecessor Abdelmalek Sellal, testified Wednesday at the Sidi M’Hamed court in Algiers.
The two men argued that the court was not competent to try them, the constitution stipulating that crimes and infractions committed by prime ministers while in office fell under a “High Court of State”.
“There is no misappropriation 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.
Former ministers Bedda Mahdjoub, Youcef Yousfi, who succeeded him in the post, and Abdelghani Zaalane are other defendants in the case.
Algerian authorities are hoping the trial helps convince the public that they are serious about fighting corruption and reforming themselves – and persuade them to go out and vote next week.
Protesters want a whole new political system instead. “Only the people can judge whether we have the will to combat corruption,” Justice Minister Belkacem Zeghmati told legislator before the trial, describing the alleged corruption as “Going beyond all comprehension.” Bouteflika, whose health condition has remained a mystery since a 2013 stroke, has not been seen in public since he left power.