Katumbi fraud conviction set aside

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An appeals court overturned the conviction of exiled Congolese opposition leader Moise Katumbi for real estate fraud, ruling the trial court was pressured by former President Joseph Kabila’s government, Katumbi’s lawyer said.

Katumbi, former governor of Democratic Republic of Congo’s copper mining Katanga region, was sentenced in absentia to three years in prison in June 2016 after defecting from Kabila’s ruling party and announcing he would run for president.

He fled Congo the previous month in the face of separate charges of hiring mercenaries and plotting against government.

Katumbi denied the charges, which he said were aimed at keeping him from running to replace Kabila, due to step down in December 2016 after 16 years in power. Kabila denied that.

His government ultimately delayed the election by two years before he finally stepped down in January, replaced by opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi, who won a December 30 vote.

The appeals court’s rulingaccepted the claims of one trial judge, Chantal Ramazani, that the verdict was issued under duress by government.

Ramazani went into hiding after making the accusations.

Katumbi’s lawyer, Joseph Mukendi, told Reuters Katumbi could return to Congo to defend himself in the mercenary case, which has not yet been tried.

Katumbi was blocked from re-entering the country last year to file his candidacy for the presidential election — a race polls showed him leading. He ended up backing opposition leader Martin Fayulu.

Fayulu finished second to Tshisekedi, although multiple sources told Reuters the results were rigged in favour of Tshisekedi, seen by Kabila as less of a threat to the outgoing administration’s interests.

Kabila and Tshisekedi’s camps deny the vote was rigged.