ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria began the corruption trial of senior officials including two former prime ministers on Wednesday, a week before a presidential election opposed by a huge protest movement.
Fighting corruption in the entrenched ruling hierarchy is one of the main goals of the protesters, but they have not yet been mollified by the arrest of dozens of senior figures including officials, former officials and businessmen.
Wednesday’s trial is the second of top figures since the start of the protest movement in February, with long prison terms handed to a former spy chief and other once powerful figures in October.
It comes at a pivotal moment in the months-long struggle between the large but leaderless protest movement, known as the “Herak”, and the military-backed authorities.
Next week’s election has been pushed by the army as the only way to end the standoff with the opposition, but the protesters have rejected the vote, saying it cannot be free or fair while the ruling elite, including the military, stay in power.
The Herak had already been mobilising tens of thousands of demonstrators every Friday for months, but since the start of the official campaign period, it has also begun protests on other days, ramping up pressure on the authorities.
Though the demonstrations have so far been mostly free from violence, there was some scuffling between protesters and riot police during a march in an eastern town last week and the government has started arresting more opposition figures.
On Tuesday, Interior Minister Salah Eddine Dahmoune attacked people opposing the election as “traitors, mercenaries and homosexuals”.
He later said his comments were aimed at people based overseas, rather than at the protest movement, but many supporters of the Herak were angered.
“The remarks will only complicate things,” said Ahmed Bachichi, who has been taking part in the weekly protests.
In the court on Wednesday, former prime ministers Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal faced charges of “misappropriation of public funds, abuse of office and granting undue privileges”.
They and most of the other officials and businessmen on trial were closely linked to the former president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was forced from office in April.
Wednesday’s session included evidence of corruption in the car assembly business, a sector encouraged by the government after 2015 in an effort to improve the trade balance in response to lower energy revenue.
“You acted with favouritism when you granted authorisations to set up car assemblies,” the judge told Ouyahia, who denied the charge, saying all permits were granted in accordance with the law.
The prosecution accused Sellal, who was campaign manager for Bouteflika when he planned to stand for another term of office early in the year, of involvement in illegal funding of the campaign. He denied it.
No verdict is expected in the trial this week.
Reporting By Hamid Ould Ahmed, editing by Angus McDowall and Angus MacSwan