Democratic Republic of Congo opposition presidential candidate Moise Katumbi was sentenced in absentia to three years in prison and fined $1 million on Wednesday after being convicted of selling a house he did not own, his lawyer said.
Katumbi had denied the charge and says it and another charge brought against him last month, of hiring mercenaries in a plot against the state, are aimed at derailing his presidential bid.
His lawyer Barthelemy Mumba Gama told Reuters the court had “flagrantly violated the minimum standards of the process” by trying Katumbi in absentia even though he had received permission from Congo’s prosecutor general to leave the country.
Katumbi, who is currently in Europe receiving medical treatment, is the most prominent candidate running to replace president Joseph Kabila in elections scheduled for November.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende denied on Wednesday there was any political motive behind the charges.
The public prosecutor said in court that Katumbi had sold a house in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi that did not belong to him. Katumbi’s lawyers have said the house is owned by his older brother Raphael Katebe Katoto and that he grew up there.
Some supporters fear the Congolese authorities will block Katumbi, a multi-millionaire former mining mogul, from returning to the country, which he was allowed to leave on May 20, a day after being indicted for hiring mercenaries.
Political tensions are high in Congo. Kabila, in power since 2001, is barred by constitutional term limits from standing again, but opponents have accused him of plotting to delay the vote in order to cling to power.
The government has said that it is unlikely it will be able to hold the election on time for logistical reasons, a delay the United Nations warned last week could trigger widespread unrest.