Embattled DR Congo opposition leader Moise Katumbi, who last month quit the country ostensibly for medical treatment, was sentenced to three years in jail Wednesday over a real estate dispute.
Katumbi, a football magnate, was seen as the leading challenger to President Joseph Kabila in elections due to be held this year, but the sentence effectively makes him ineligible to stand.
A three-judge tribunal in Lubumbashi, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s second biggest city in the southeast of the country, rendered the decision against Katumbi on a day marked by twists and turns in the case.
The court found Katumbi guilty of fraud over a Greek national’s allegations that he forged and presented false documents in the acquisition of a property the Greek national said he would eventually inherit.
Katumbi was sentenced to three years in jail and ordered to pay $1 million in damages to the plaintiff, as well as a fine of 900,000 Congolese francs ($940).
The public prosecutor had been seeking a five-year jail term and a loss of Katumbi’s political rights for five years after serving his jail term.
The verdict elicited a certain amount of confusion and criticism in the hours after it was announced, however.
According to an AFP journalist at the courthouse, one of the three judges apparently refused to sign onto the judgement before it was rendered.
But by the end of the day, the journalist saw the judgement come back signed by all three judges.
Katumbi’s attorney Mumba Gama told AFP the defiant judge had finally succumbed “under pressure”.
The case had taken an even stranger turn that morning when a newspaper in the capital Kinshasa announced the three-year jail term before the court had made its judgement public.
Katumbi to appeal
Katumbi’s legal team, which had called into question the tribunal’s competence, immediately denounced the verdict and said it planned to appeal.
The sentence will be suspended pending the appeal’s final outcome.
Katumbi was an ally of Kabila for a decade but quit the ruling party in September over the president’s plans to split several provinces, including Katanga, which is the size of Spain, into four separate entities.
With political tensions soaring over expectations that Kabila wants to extend his rule despite being barred from a third term, Katumbi has left the country as he faces charges of undermining state security.
Katumbi, 51, is the wealthy owner of the prestigious Tout-Puissant Mazembe football club, three-time winner of the African Champions League.
He quit the country on May 20, a day after the government announced he would be tried for endangering state security.
He flew to South Africa, ostensibly for medical treatment, and subsequently settled in London.
Katumbi announced in May that he planned to stand in the election due later this year, but was swiftly hit with an investigation into claims he hired foreign mercenaries.
A few weeks ago, DRC released former US soldier Darryl Lewis after he was accused of being part of a network of armed agents infiltrating the country, allegations dismissed by the US embassy in Kinshasa as lies.
The ex-corporal was one of four members of Katumbi’s entourage arrested in Lubumbashi on April 24, a day after an opposition protest involving Katumbi’s supporters.
Opposition parties in the country said earlier this month they had forged an alliance to demand that Kabila quit when his term expires in December.
Kabila has been in power since his father’s assassination in 2001