Ex-Zambian Leader Acquitted of Corruption Charges

A magistrate acquitted former Zambian President Frederick Chiluba of corruption charges Monday after a six-year trial in a ruling that overjoyed his supporters but frustrated clean-government campaigners in Africa.

Chiluba, 63, was accused of diverting nearly $500,000 of state
money into accounts to pay for an extravagant lifestyle when he
served as Zambia's first democratically elected leader from 1991 to
2001. The judge ruled that the funds could not be traced to
government coffers.

About 150 supporters in the courtroom broke into applause even
before Magistrate Jones Chinyama finished reading the handwritten,
3,400-word verdict.

"After studying the evidence presented to this court, I'm left
with no doubt that the prosecution failed to prove their case
beyond a reasonable doubt," Chinyama said.

Chiluba smiled and hugged his wife and other family members,
then walked from the courthouse to his black Mercedes-Benz as his
supporters ran after him, singing and dancing.

"I want to thank the people of Zambia for their friendship, for
they have never called me a thief," Chiluba said in an interview
at his home with Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation.

Two co-defendants, former executives of a financial services
company, were found guilty of receiving stolen money from the
Zambian intelligence services. They both were sentenced to five
years in jail.

The United States had supported the trial and wider efforts
across Africa to combat corruption. U.S. Ambassador to Zambia
Donald E. Booth said Monday the trial itself was important.

"The fact that former President Chiluba was brought to trial in
Zambia for corruption shows that no one is above scrutiny," Booth
said Monday.

But Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, a pro-democracy and anti-corruption
campaigner in Nigeria, said he had anticipated a guilty verdict for
the former president because several people close to Chiluba -
including his wife - were convicted earlier on related charges.

Rafsanjani said the verdict was "quite frustrating," and
underscores how investigators and prosecutors in impoverished
African countries often can't compete with the legal firepower
marshaled by wealthy leaders accused of corruption.

"It's a big concern for us in Africa, and that's one of the
reasons why corrupt leaders are hardly (ever) punished,"
Rafsanjani said. "That's the way it goes in many places in Africa.
You just buy justice. That's why many people have lost faith in
courts in Africa."

Goodwell Lungu, head of the Zambia office of the corruption
watchdog Transparency International, also called the verdict a
surprise and expressed hope that the state would appeal.

The prosecution "should not lose hope in the fight against
corruption. Such setbacks in the fight against corruption are to be expected," he said.

Chiluba had faced up 15 years in jail. He had claimed to be the
victim of a political witch hunt backed by Britain, Zambia's former
colonial rulers.

In March Chiluba's wife, Regina, was convicted of receiving
$300,000 in cash and goods that prosecutors said the former
president stole from his official residence. She was sentenced to
3½ years' hard labor and is free pending an appeal.

Britain's Foreign Office said Monday that the British government
did not directly fund the investigation into Chiluba's finances,
but has funded wider corruption-fighting projects.

In a statement the British government said it had followed
Chiluba's prosecution "with great interest" and would study the
judgment.

"More broadly the U.K. government looks forward to the
continuing commitment by the government of Zambia and the president
to fighting corruption," the statement said.

A leading Kenyan anti-graft campaigner, John Githongo, praised
the authorities in Zambia "for making this effort while knowing
its challenges."

"A small country undertaking a multi-jurisdictional case like
this is important in and of itself," Githongo said.

But Zambia needed help. When proceedings began in 2003, its
courts were not equipped to handle the large volume of documents
and evidence. Court transcription was still done by longhand. The
U.S. Treasury Department provided technical assistance and other
donor nations also helped.

Chiluba's prosecution was part of an anti-corruption campaign
pushed by the late President Levy Mwanawasa, once Chiluba's
protege. Mwanawasa, 59, died last year after a stroke.

Under Mwanawasa, a stream of Chiluba's close political, military
and business aides either have been sent to jail or are awaiting
sentencing for abuse of office and theft.

Zambian prosecutors had contended that Chiluba diverted nearly
$500,000 in public money, intended for debt servicing, into a fund
from which he paid his children's school fees and legal costs
incurred during his re-election in 1996.

A former trade unionist, Chiluba helped force an end to 27 years
of one-party rule under Zambia's first president, Kenneth Kaunda,
in 1991 and became the country's first democratically elected
president.

Chiluba named Mwanawasa his vice president after his 1991
victory. Mwanawasa soon quit the post, complaining of corruption.

Zambian prosecutors won a major victory in 2007 in a London High
Court civil case, when Judge Peter Smith ruled that Chiluba - who
refused to attend the proceedings - was guilty of stealing $46
million from Zambian state coffers during his 10 years in office.

Zambian prosecutors had pursued the case in British courts
because some of the money was allegedly laundered through British
banks.

Smith ordered Chiluba to pay back 85 percent of the money, and
in his ruling painted a picture of a decadent ruler who spent
taxpayer funds on expensive suits and shoes while most Zambians
lived in poverty. Chiluba has appealed and has not made any
repayments.

The British government noted that the High Court decision
against Chiluba was in the process of being registered in Zambia
for enforcement.


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