, LUSAKA, Aug 17 – A Zambian court on Monday began reading its verdict in the corruption trial of former president Frederick Chiluba, who is accused of embezzling 500,000 dollars in public funds.
Chiluba, 66, was in the court for the reading of the 145-page ruling, which could land him in prison for up to five years over claims that he stole state funds during his 10-year rule over the copper-rich southern African country.
If convicted, he would become one of only a handful of African leaders ever convicted of corruption, although he would still have the option to appeal, which would see him remain free on bail.
The case has dragged on for six years and has resonated across a continent where a raft of leaders are also embroiled in graft scandals.
Proceedings against Chiluba were dropped in 2004, but he was re-arrested and returned to the dock later that year, while facing a separate civil claim lodged in a British court by the Zambian government.
Regardless of the outcome of the case, the trial marks an ignominious turn for the former trade unionist who was hailed for ending one-party rule in Zambia when he terminated the 27-year reign of founding president Kennneth Kaunda in elections in 1991.
Chiluba insists that the Lusaka charges are political.
The case was brought by his hand-picked successor, the late president Levy Mwanawasa, who launched a sweeping anti-corruption drive that has already jailed a raft of top political and military officials.
Mwanawasa stripped his former mentor of immunity against prosecution. Chiluba’s wife Regina was sentenced earlier this year to three and a half years for receiving stolen property. She is appealing the sentence.
The ruling was deferred last month after Chiluba, who faces the graft charges alongside two businessmen, failed to file written submissions in time to the court for consideration in the judgment.
Chiluba had arrived at court Friday to cheers from his supporters expecting to hear the ruling, but the verdict was postponed to Monday.
He is still waging a separate legal battle to get the Zambian Supreme Court not to recognise his 2007 graft conviction by a British court.
In the London case Chiluba and others were found guilty of defrauding the Zambian government, and the court ruled that he should be denied access to his pension at Barclays Bank.
The conviction could see his local assets seized if Zambian courts decide to apply the verdict locally.
Zambia’s government last year began efforts to register the judgement locally to begin recovering the money. Chiluba has argued that the British court ruling should not apply here.
During the London case, the judge pointed to Chiluba’s extravagant tastes and said Zambians should know that Chiluba’s flashy suits were paid for with money stolen from them by the former president.
Chiluba — who officially earned about 100,000 dollars during his time in power — had hundreds of custom-made shirts bearing his monogramme and "signature" shoes with raised heels to support the man who measures 1.5 metres (four feet, 11 inches) tall.
Nearly two thirds of Zambia’s 11.7 million people live on less than two dollars a day.