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29.04.2019 Algeria

Algeria Finance Minister Questioned In Fraud Probe

Abdellah Cheballah
Africa An Algerian protester holds sign that reads
APR 29, 2019 ALGERIA
An Algerian protester holds sign that reads

Algerian Finance Minister Mohamed Loukal was questioned Monday in a probe into alleged corruption, state television reported, part of a wider crackdown following the fall of veteran leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

The former central bank governor is the first government official to appear before prosecutors since mass protests erupted in February against Bouteflika's two-decade rule.

Former police chief Abdelghani Hamel was also questioned separately by a prosecutor as part of a judicial inquiry into alleged bribery, the state broadcaster said.

Since Bouteflika stepped down in early April in the face of growing anger on the streets, several regime officials and businessmen close to him have been sacked, detained or questioned over alleged graft.

Loukal was appointed finance minister at the end of March when Bouteflika, facing massive pressure from demonstrators demanding change, named a new prime minister.

He was seen leaving a court in Algiers afterwards and was whisked away in a black car without making a statement.

Around a dozen people were gathered outside chanting: "Thieves, you looted the country!" -- one of the slogans of the protest movement.

A week ago, Loukal and former premier Ahmed Ouyahia were summoned for questioning but it was not clear if they would be heard as suspects or witnesses.

State television said Loukal was being questioned in cases concerning "misuse of public funds and undue advantages", but did not elaborate.

Hamel, who was once tipped as Bouteflika's successor before he was fired by the veteran leader in June 2018, appeared in a court in Tipaza, west of Algiers, along with one of his sons, the television said.

They are being interrogated as part of a probe into "illegal activity, bribery, embezzlement of funds and abuse of power", it said.

Both men were released after the questioning, according to private television networks which did not provide further details.

Since Bouteflika's ouster, investigators have cracked down on alleged graft, zeroing in on the activities of prominent politicians and businessmen following two decades of cronyism under the former president.

High-profile figures targeted over the past week include the North African country's richest man, Issad Rebrab, who was detained on allegations of false customs declarations.

The head of the vast state oil firm Sonatrach, Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour, has been fired and replaced on the orders of interim president Abdelkader Bensalah.

Four brothers from the influential Kouninef family, close to Bouteflika's brother Said, have been arrested over alleged non-compliance with state contracts, according to official media.

After pushing Bouteflika to quit with mass demonstrations launched on February 22, protesters have kept up their rallies, calling for a complete overhaul of Algeria's political system, improved living standards and the eradication of corruption.

Algeria ranks 105 out of 180 on the corruption perception index of Transparency International for 2018.

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