Ouyahia questioned in probe into longtime elite - GulfToday

Ouyahia questioned in probe into longtime elite

Algeria-protest

Protesters demonstrate as Algeria’s former prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia appears at Sidi M’hamed court in Algiers on Tuesday. Reuters

Former Algerian prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia was questioned on Tuesday over corruption allegations, state TV reported, as the army chief vowed a widening investigation into deposed president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s circle will not descend into score settling.

Algeria’s military would ensure judicial investigations were not be subject to “pressure or decrees”, nor would they be “arbitrary or (involve) the settlement of scores”, army chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah said in a speech on Tuesday.

Private television channels broadcast footage of the unpopular Ouyahia’s arrival at court in the centre of the capital Algiers.

“Take Ouyahia to El Harrach,” the prison where five businessmen have been detained since early April on corruption charges, dozens of demonstrators gathered outside chanted.

“They should all go, they should all be held to account,” read banners carried by the protesters, as anti-riot police were deployed in strength to guard the court.

Ouyahia left the courthouse on Tuesday afternoon and did not say anything as he departed, an AFP journalist said. The former prime minister is the latest prominent figure to be caught up in a fraud probe launched by prosecutors since the ailing Bouteflika was forced to step down on April 3 following weeks of mass protests.

Finance Minister Mohamed Loukal, a former central bank governor, was questioned at the same Algiers court on Monday over suspicions of “squandering” public funds.

Salah said the defence ministry was aware of several serious corruption cases, involving “huge” theft of public funds. He said the security services had left the cases at the “disposal of the justice system”.

Ouyahia and Loukal were both summoned on April 20 for questioning by prosecutors.

Ouyahia served four times as prime minister from 1995, three of them during Bouteflika’s two-decade rule. He was finally abandoned by his longtime master on March 11 in a last-ditch bid to hang on to power.

Loukal was appointed finance minister at the end of March after Bouteflika named interior minister Noureddine Bedoui to replace Ouyahia as prime minister. Former police chief Abdelghani Hamel was also questioned separately on Monday as part of a judicial inquiry into alleged bribery, state media said.

Hamel — once tipped as Bouteflika’s successor before he was fired by the veteran leader in June last year — appeared in a court in Tipaza, west of Algiers, before being released, the official APS news agency said. Since Bouteflika’s ouster, investigators have cracked down on alleged graft, zeroing in on the activities of prominent politicians and businessmen following two decades of cronyism under the veteran president.

High-profile figures targeted in the past week include the North African country’s richest man, Issad Rebrab, who was reportedly detained on allegations of false customs declarations.

The head of the vast state oil firm Sonatrach, Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour, has been fired and replaced on the orders of interim president Abdelkader Bensalah.

Four brothers from the influential Kouninef family, close to Bouteflika’s brother Said, have been arrested over alleged non-compliance with state contracts, according to official media. After pushing Bouteflika to quit with mass demonstrations launched on Feb.22, protesters have kept up their rallies, calling for a complete overhaul of Algeria’s political system, improved living standards and the eradication of corruption.

The International Crisis Group think-tank last week expressed scepticism about Algeria’s anti-corruption drive, charging that the regime was using it to “settle internal scores”.

Algeria ranks 105 out of 180 on Transparency International’s 2018 corruption perceptions index.

On Tuesday, it was the turn of thousands of students to hold protest marches through central Algiers and several other cities.

Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah, the army chief of staff, gave no names or details on Tuesday but vowed to help the judiciary handle corruption cases freely.

“The judiciary has been freed from all pressures,” he said in a speech at a military base in the eastern city of Constantine. “The country will be cleansed of corruption and corrupt people.” Salah spoke hours after former prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia, who was sacked as part of a cabinet reshuffle two days before Bouteflika resigned, appeared in court as part of a corruption investigation.

Agencies